Thursday, February 24, 2011

This may be from the last 'Memorabilia'box, now safely at the bottom of the green metal recycling bin at the DPW. But no promises.

On Side A, a ditto'd information sheet from Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island - dated 6/77 - regarding pregnancy results. It enumerates option #1, if you wish to continue your pregnancy, and option #2, if you wish to terminate your pregnancy. An abortion cost $170 and that included a post-abortion check-up.
On Side B, in my handwriting:
Bald Baby
The Motel next Door
The drapes were too short for the window in the apartment where they had lived for 10 years. Through the unclaimed space between the windowsill and the drapes they watched the activity in the sidewalk. Each night, after his wife had taken her last sleeping pill, he watched alone and hoped to see a mugging or a rape, some visible manifestation of the violence of our times, which he so deplored. He would call the police, of course, and blow his emergency whistle.

In 8/1877 my pregnancy with Reine was confirmed. Option #1.

Other items included a college essay about Quentin Compson and suicide, a handmade puzzle by my (then) ten-year old sister (who, lamentably, did not pursue a career in cryptography) and every ticket stub from every historical and archeological site in Greece and Turkey our family visited in 1975.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pushing the Panic Button

One of the things I do not miss about teenagers is worrying about them getting home safely at night. This is because I dislike worrying, and I have a vivid imagination, and also because I really like to sleep and get cranky when I do not.
It has been a while since I have anguished over the whereabouts of a vagrant offspring. But last night I got to revisit those halcyon days of pushing the parental panic-button.
A charming 18-year-old godson is staying with us this week while he works in the city for another godparent, as ours is an easy commute and an easy walk to the train station.
All I ask is to be informed when or if said godson will be showing up for dinner, or beyond.
So the dutiful Adrian called to let me know he would be having sushi with a friend uptown and then taking the train that would get him to Hastings by 10 or 11. Fine. I would probably be sleeping over my book (Mental Healers by Stefan Zweig; rather sleepy), but the door would be open and the lights on. Turn the lights off when you come in.
Around 1 a.m., CSB, who wakes at odd hours, told me that Adrian was not home yet.
I called his cell phone but only got a voicemail message.
I began to imagine all sorts of events that might lead us to this particular juncture: Adrian not home and his whereabouts is unknown.
At CSB’s suggestion, I looked up the Metro North schedule to see when the last train got in. There was actually a later one than I thought, getting in at 2:29 am. So I allowed myself to hope that Adrian would be on that train.
Meanwhile, I was worrying about how I would contact Rip and Barbara on a cruise ship in the Caribbean and tell them that their son, who had lately managed to survive 10 months as an exchange student in a remote area of Japan, had gone astray after his first day on the job in NYC.
I kept assuring myself that after all that aphrodisiac raw fish, he and the young lady in question had simply become amorous and afterward he had fallen asleep.
I could equally well imagine that he and the young lady became ill eating the sushi and because it would reflect so badly on the entire Japanese restaurant trade for these young people to be seen vomiting on a sidewalk, the restaurateur performed the culinary version of extraordinary rendition, and dispatched the two nauseated youngsters to Staten Island in an unmarked van.
Then I imagined that while walking home from the train he had slipped and fallen on his head and was lying in the snow in the dark middle of Draper Park, being sniffed by hungry coyotes. Or perhaps he was attacked by a mugger who lost his way to Manhattan and ended up mistakenly in Hastings where he attacked Adrian and now he was lying in the snow in the dark middle of Draper Park, being sniffed by hungry coyotes.
This is what I did not imagine: that in course of an pleasant collegial visit, a friend’s roommate had an asthma attack and had to be taken to the ER, after which Adrian missed one train, got on a later train and fell soundly asleep and did not wake up until the train reached its terminus at Croton Harman, exactly 8 stops and 14.9 miles past the right stop. He arrived in Croton Harmon too late to catch a return train to Hastings, and had to take a taxi home. He arrived several minutes after he would have arrived had he taken the very last train from Grand Central.
Then I slept.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A very limited selection of items found in a box labeled “Christine’s Correspondence, Juvenilia and Memorabilia”

• A postcard from my sister, Brigitte’s campaign for Trustee of the Portland Water District (she won)
• An invitation to Rip’s (first) wedding at Ear Inn, in which his and his bride’s faces are superimposed on a picture of two samurai warriors. Or are they meant to be Don Quixote and Sancho Panza?
• A color Xerox self-portrait of my late ex-husband in a dinner jacket, a velvet bow tie and naked from the waist down
• A letter from Alex from the hospital when he was paralyzed from the waist down, about his sadness after the death of Geoff and the AIDS discrimination lawsuit. (they would both be dead when the cases was won)
• Among several letters from a dear friend from grad school, Harold, one from 1988 saying that he had been in rehab, that his wife had left him and gone with their young son to live in NYC; then in a 1992 letter he wrote that he was going to remarry, and he said of his new wife: “there aren’t a lot of women who love the Lord and understand what makes Samuel Beckett funny”. I wish I had written that.
• 40 birthday cards my mother sent on the occasion of my 40th birthday, each one alluding to a high (or low) point of that calendar year
• An astrological chart made for me in 1994 by Lis’s astrologer friend, 4 pages of small print, full of symbols, planets, glyphs, aspects, houses. I don’t understand any of it.
• Numerous letters from Ruth, who for many years was my best correspondent; some were written on PLAYGIRL stationary, where she worked sometime in the 80’s; others on PACIFICA radio stationary, where she had a talk show. I haven’t heard from her in over 2 years now, and it is a terrible mystery.
• My grandmother’s Saigon carte d’identité for 1939-1940. By 1941 they were refugees, fleeing the Japanese invasion
• A 1990 letter from my mother describing Bonne-Maman’s memory loss symptoms, in painful detail
• The 1940 handbook for the Golf club de Saigon. I had no idea my grandfather played golf, if in fact he did.

Why am I doing this?

There is no other way of putting it: I am fearful lest I drop dead suddenly today, tomorrow, sometime soon and leave my children with the task of wrestling with boxes of papers and pictures. I want it all to be tidy.
Meanwhile, I could be losing my grip.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A long time ago, at the dawn on the Internet era, there was a very funny cartoon in the New Yorker featuring a dog at a computer and the caption: On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog.
Today I would amend that: On the internet (and providing you turn off the video monitor) no one knows your face is evidencing a weird and disconcerting allergic reaction to some as yet unidentified aspect of the universe, with blotches, bloating and itching. On the Internet you can still look like that 1985 picture of you in a red bathing suit reclining near a Costa Rican waterfall.
Over here, across the Internet, my face is prickly and puffy and none of the normal remedies (Benadryl, eye of Newt, bee stings, St Ulphia’s Cream, arnica) are doing any good. I have no idea why my face is doing this, but when I think about it too much – and I am thinking about far too much – I cannot help but think this is the outer manifestation of my inner prickliness and puffiness. I must mend my ways, but what ways shall I mend?
I checked out the patron saints of skin rashes and skin diseases, and they are a good bunch.
St Anthony the Abbott, anchorite of Egypt, (251-356). The rational for his patronage goes thus: In art he is generally represented with a bell, a book, and pig by his side. Originally the pig denoted the Devil, with whom Anthony had many tussles as he prayed out there in the desert, and Anthony always got the better of the Evil One. But the meaning changed in the 12th century when the Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony used to allow the poor people to graze their pigs gratis upon the monastery’s acorns. And since skin diseases were often treated with poultices of pork fat, to alleviate itchiness and reduce inflammation, the connection was made between St Anthony and skin disease. For extra credit, here is a good word to know: tantony. A tantony pig is the runt of the litter, named for the saint.
Yet another confusing aspect of Saint Anthony the Abbott, is that he is not the St Anthony I thought he was. St Anthony was my beloved grandmother, Bonne Maman’s favorite saint; she invoked him almost hourly to find lost objects. But the Anthony of Lost Objects is not the Anthony of Egypt, which confused me as a child since she had lived in Egypt for so long. The Anthony she prayed to never left Italy.
Anthony the Abbot died at the respectable age of 105, and Butler informs us that not one tooth “was lost or loosened.”
Pisanello’s Madonna with St Anthony Abbott and St George. The pig at St Anthony’s side looks more like a boar to me, but what do I know?

Saint George is another patron of skin diseases, but I think we dealt with him, and his dragon slaughter, yesterday.
So we shall move on to St Marculf, the renowned missionary to those pagan Gauls. There is no mention of intimacy with skin rashes in his lifetime (Unless you count the Miracle of Snail Slime). But later French kings, otherwise known for their clean living, found that touching St Marculf’s relics, particularly the ulna bones, could cure their scrofula, also known as The King’s Evil. (Scrofula is a kind of TB with some very unattractive symptoms; it is the root of the excellent adjective, Scrofulous.)
St Peregrine Laziosi (1260 – 1345) was so anti-church in his youth that during a demonstration he hit the papal nuncio (later to be St Philip Benizi); Philip turned the other cheek and Bam! – Peregrine was converted. In order to do atone for his misdeeds, he spent 30 years working in silence, solitude and standing. The only time he spoke was to preach. We don’t know whether or not it was on account of the constant standing, but Peregrine did develop cancer of the foot. The night before his scheduled amputation, he had a vision of Jesus touching the diseased area, and in the morning he was cured.
The only patron saint I would have guessed is St Roch (1295-1327), because he is often represented lifting his robes to display his plague-ulcerated leg, with his faithful dog by his side.
Roch contracted the plague while ministering to the afflicted and then went into the forest to die. He survived because a dog brought him food and gave him solace. Unfortunately, when Roch recovered and returned to Montpelier, he was arrested as a spy and jailed for 5 years. It is not said what happened to the dog while Roch languished in prison. We do know that an angel brought Roch food while he was incarcerated, but he still died. Draw your own conclusions.
St Roch with his dog

As my sainted mother would say when confronted with a sumptuous dessert tray: “L’embarras du choix.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

There are the memories evoked by the postcards with their bizarre images and unfathomable messages; it is as if each word is a portal to a memory palace.

And then there are the strange photographs of dubious provenance; and even when identified, still it remains unclear what I was thinking when I took them.
Here is a picture taken inside the Cathedral of León, Nicaragua. I know that because it says so on the back, and nothing more. The picture’s main feature is a dark green plaster dragon at the foot of a robed statue. Between its bared teeth, the dragon is biting something red and amorphous. Because it is in a church and inside a glass case, I am guessing this red dangling blob was once a bouquet of faux flowers; I only say this because on so many occasions I have been shocked to find plastic or silk flowers gracing a statue inside a tropical church, when just outside there are real flowers in profusion, agapanthus, datura, bougainvillea, jacaranda, birds of paradise, and wild ginger.

The statue is truncated above the knee by my photographic ineptitude, so without a renewed visit to the León Cathedral or a conversation with the current deacon of the cathedral (assuming there is one, which is an optimistic assumption given the dearth of clergy in Central America and everywhere else, except Rome), I can’t tell you which saint’s feet the dragon sits upon. I guess it is either Saint George or Saint Margaret of Antioch, because they are the two saints most commonly represented with dragons. St George is generally shown on horseback slaying the wicked dragon and thereby saving the princess about to be devoured by said dragon, as his daily meal of a beautiful virgin.
Recently I revisited the story of Saint George and the Dragon, on account of Leda, precocious and beloved granddaughter. As we sometimes do, I met up with Leda and her mother in Grand Central Station. They have come from hipster Brooklyn; I have debouched from Metro-North. The very first thing Leda showed me was a postcard of Raphael’s St George and the Dragon, this having been her choice of all the possible postcards in the bookstore in Grand Central. (In case you are wondering which Raphael version of Saint George’s heroic feat/ animal slaughter, it was the one in which the grateful virgin princess is off to the side in a prayerful position, not the one in which George’s candy-cane lance is broken and the dragon is nipping at his heels as the virgin flees in the background.) Precocious granddaughter explained to me that it was a good thing George was killing the dragon, which prompted us both to wonder exactly why are dragons always the villains (I am thinking pre-Puff.). We learned that one reason dragons were so fearful and feared, was that, along with their tongues of flame and their appetite for virgins, their exhalations spread plague over the countryside. Leda added, peripherally or perhaps not, that she sometimes has dragon breath in the morning. “But it’s alright, Nana,” she explained. “We all do. Even you.”
Back in Nicaragua, I am now persuaded that the saint only seen from the knees down is Saint Margaret, because she is wearing a gown and she is not on horseback, and the dragon is not dead. Saint Margaret of Antioch is the patron saint of childbirth for the very good reason that when she was swallowed whole by a marauding dragon, the crucifix she carried aloft tickled his throat and he coughed her right back up. Her emergence from the maw of the dragon being a rough version of childbirth, if you have a vivid imagination. If you perceive the dragon as representing Satan, as it generally was in medieval times, then the patronage becomes even more farfetched.

← Leda’s choice. Note praying princess. ←another Raphael St George, this time with the princess fleeing.
This morning – finding the postcard under our bed where it must have flown when Leda was practicing her somersaults - CSB asked me how Raphael died. Was this a trick question? (Would Watson know?) I knew he died young (37) but I didn’t know how. But I do now.
Vasari tells us that after a night of riotous sex with his beloved mistress, Raphael developed a raging fever and died on Good Friday of 1520. This was the same year Magellan sailed through the Straits of Magellan, though they were not yet so-named, and also the first year of the smallpox epidemic that would kill half the Aztec population (Gracias, conquistadores.) Most importantly, in 1520 chocolate made its first journey across the ocean from Mexico to Spain, so that 490 years later more than $1 billion could be spent on chocolate hearts on or about February 14.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Discovering the pecking order

When honorable-son-in-business-school first asked me if we would be fitting our chickens with contact lenses, I laughed, and very wittily answered that we would do just that right after they got their hair extensions.
“Seriously, Mom”, said honorable-son. “You mock, but they really exist; we did a case study on the company that developed them, and they will solve your pecking problems.”
“What pecking problems?”
That was then. This is now. Obviously I have heard of a pecking order, and being well versed etymologically, I knew from whence the expression came. But knowing an expression’s provenance is not remotely the same as experiencing it, intimately, daily in the chicken coop. Yes, our chickens peck each other, and the chickens at the top of the order peck the ones lower down the order. This order is, so we have learned, determined by their combs and their perception of combs, and this is where the contact lenses come in. A while back a farmer’s chickens developed cataracts. He separated the afflicted fowl from the rest of the flock, and called the vet. Together, they noticed that the chickens with cataracts were markedly less peckish and cannibalistic than his chickens with 20-20 vision. So instead of seeking to cure the cataract-chickens, they wondered how they could similarly afflict the whole lot of them.
You cannot actually give the chickens cataracts, but with red-tinted contact lenses you can reproduce the effects of cataracts, and their behavior will improve. A trained crew can insert lenses in 225 chickens per hour. We don’t have 225 chickens, and we aren’t trained. Sometimes it takes us several minutes to catch one chicken. And I gave up wearing contact lenses myself about 20 years ago because I became so impatient inserting them each morning.
For the Hens of Hastings, I am considering red-tinted spectacles on elastic bands.
Perhaps if they had all been wearing glasses, Wanda would not have met her untimely end, de-feathered and pecked by her roommates. It was while we were lamenting her death early this morning that Joanna, who is Polish, asked CSB if we ever feed our hens bread. He said that I sometimes do. And it’s true that on Wednesday when I made crust-less cucumber sandwiches for the Ladies Literature Club, I gave the crusts to the hens, and this somewhat mollified my normal guilt feelings about wasting all that good crust. I once tried serving cucumber sandwiches with crusts, but it was not a success; connoisseurs of cucumber sandwiches (such as CSB) are adamant that crusts have no place in a proper one. According to Joanna, her sister back in Poland does not give her chickens old bread because it is bad for their livers. She said it was the acid in bread that bothered their livers, but I think – from her rising gestures - she meant the yeast. English is not her first language.
Just a few minutes later Gill called to tell me that she read an article about a chef who asserts the secret of making great pasta is using Italian eggs because they have the most orange yolks. And Gill, who frequents Italy, concurs that Italian egg yolks are significantly more orange than even our newly laid eggs. So the question is: what are the Italian chickens eating?
And do they wear contact lenses?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Epiphany in the Container Store

Since Jeff died over a month ago, I have (obsessively, maniacally, frantically) organized and purged: the basement, all the Christmas paraphernalia, all the children’s books, my vast collection of filched stationary from hotels, several drawers filled with tools, random screws and broken appliances, and boxes of old letters and birthday cards. It was all about working my way up to the mother of organizing tasks: the pictures.* That documentary evidence of our past happiness, folly, and confusion. Those images more resonant for their lacunae.

In order to complete this insane project of organizing all our photographs, I decided I needed boxes of a very specific shape. My own box supply was deficient, and then I heard about the Container Store.
I had never been to the Container Store before, and it was, for me, akin to what Disneyland must be like for cartoon-infused children. I didn’t know where to look. I started hyperventilating. I had never seen so many boxes, in so many sizes, for so many specific purposes, made of so many materials. Perhaps if I lived in the Container Store my brain would undergo sympathetic convergent compartmentalization. Perhaps.
They carry boxes specifically designed for every possible article of clothing: Panty boxes, Sock boxes, Boxer and Brief boxes, Bra boxes, and Lingerie boxes. Of if you prefer, you can get a Diamond Drawer organizer for all your socks. And for $7.99 you can buy a hanging Flip-Flop Holder, to store your collection of cheap rubber sandals. The myriad possibilities for storing and stretching and preserving your shoes have robbed me of words.

There is an entire wall of gadgets and gizmos for organizing and concealing cables & cords. How could one choose? I could not.
You can buy a package of large rubber bands designed to hold the plastic garbage bag in place in your wastebasket. Someone somewhere actually decided that the consumers of America needed task specific rubber bands, and so they created them (& had them made in China) and packaged them and now you can buy them for $7.99.
I cannot say for sure, but I have the distinct impressive that a large percentage of the goods at the Container Store can be bought for $7.99.
The section on desk & office supplies sent me into rhapsodies. You can have a stapler shaped like a dog. Or you can have a stapler that uses no stables but very cleverly punctures the paper and then uses the punched-out chad to bind the pages. It is touted as the environmentally friendly stapler, presumably because papers stapled together in this staple-less fashion can be easily recycled. There is a row of magnetic bookmarks, and another row of designer page flags. I was delighted to learn that those handy sticky things are called page flags. Never having conceived before that designer page flags even existed, I am now coveting the whole set of designer page flags, the ones with geometric patterns and the ones with naturalistic patters (I like the grass) and the abstract expressionistic page flags.
Another aisle is devoted to various boxes for storing your rolls of wrapping paper, tissue paper and ribbons. Or perhaps you would prefer a hanging canvas apron (I don’t know what else to call it) with pockets for wrapping paper, ribbons, scissors, tape and whatever else your wrapping requires.

This morning I returned to the Container Store to return all the boxes I don’t really need, but could not resist on first acquaintance. But I am keeping my Mini-Cable Turtle.

Why is this task so daunting, and why will it take forever? The above is one small example: 2 snapshots of beloved son and his favorite cousin in Marshfield, that summer when it rained all August. A month of rain is a long time when you are a small boy. In a moment of cabin fever the cousins had the brilliant idea of going to the old boat house and setting up the even older pool table. Like all proper pool tables, it was made of slate and hence weighed many hundreds of pounds. Using methods known only to those two small boys and now deeply classified, they managed to move the pool table from a corner and were on their way to installing it, when it fell and landed on beloved son’s toe, and crushed it. (Yet this is only the official version of events. There is also the ineffable. There is the provenance of every piece of furniture and every hideous fabric; there are remembered smells.)
Later, his grandmother would describe the bloody mess as resembling blueberry jam.
Tristram spent the next week or more in a cast. The doctor told him he might lose the toe if he did not keep still and stay off it. The cousins then played a lot more Monopoly, at which they were, and still are, very adept and cutthroat. You play with them at your peril. His toe is fine now. It is not a thing of beauty, but it does everything a toe needs to do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Orthographic Apis mellifera.

(Excuse the title, but how could I have resisted?)

On Friday evenings, a certain person I know likes to eat Thai take-out and watch Swiss Family Robinson. Another heads for the gym to lift three times his body weight. One dear friend celebrates the end of each work week by eating alone at a Romanian restaurant.
I go to the Spelling Bee.
Admittedly, I am unable to go to a spelling bee every Friday night. Only once a year* do I manage this feat. But I love it, and neither death nor disease nor ice storms (and we have had plenty of all three) can keep me from spending an evening testing my spelling chops against the teams on stage, they with the Painfully Punned Names (The Bee-spoke team; the Bee-lievers; the Wordy Women; the Spellbinders; the Bee Train: You get the idea.)
And yes, CSB loves the spelling bee as much as I do, though he declines to test his orthographic skills – even though the program provides a blank page for this very exercise.
As for my orthographic skills…there is room for improvement.
For instance, the word was Gnathonic, with a silent G. The enunciator pronounced it and defined it (Fawning or flattering. After Gnatho, sycophant in Terence's play Eunuchus.) and some atavistic linguistic memory told me that the first letter was silent. But I guessed it was P, as in Pneumonia. I was wrong. It was G, as in gnome. Now I can only wait patiently for the perfect occasion to use gnathonic.
Another treasure I came home with was erythropsia, the condition of seeing everything as red. I have since discovered that erythropsia is not the only possible chromatopsia. If you see everything as yellow you are experiencing xanthopsia. If your eyeballs are yellow, you have jaundice. Cyanopsia is blue vision, and it is not curable.
There was exactly one word that not a single team on stage spelled correctly, but I did: Clerihew. And why was this? Because I actually know what a Clerihew is, because my friend Helen Barolini explained it to all of us in Literature Club, and because our Literature Club sponsored a clerihew contest. One person in Britain submitted over 90 clerihews, and I am sorry to say that most of them were quite unfortunate.
I was so delighted with this turn of events that I almost had to say something. CSB would have found this painfully embarrassing, and so I did not.

There has been much fractious discussion about the spelling of eleemosynary. The enunciator said it was spelled: eleeymosynary, with that additional Y. But I think he was wrong. It is hard enough to spell eleemosynary without putting in an extra Y.

* A fundraiser for the Irvington Library, held in January at the Irvington Town Hall. Full disclosure: Let it Bee Local Honey advertises in the program.