Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mystery picture identified, I think

One small mystery, out of all the extant and still very pressing mysteries, has been solved. I did not worship at the altar of Nancy Drew for nothing.
The mystery photograph has been identified as the assembled participants at the Summer Institute for Social Progress, at Wellesley College, in 1948 (or possible 1951). For 10 halcyon days you could take workshops on Civil Rights – How do we Preserve and Extend them at Home and Abroad, as well as The Mental Hygiene Approach to World Peace and Security.
How did I figure this out? In a dark recess of the aforementioned horsehair trunk I found a frayed program for this institute and then I went and looked for pictures of Wellesley College, and there it was: Tower Court. The surrounding buildings seem to be different, but the central structure is unmistakable. And an institute devoted to social progress might explain how we have such an integrated group back in 1948.

Germaine’s interests were not limited to social progress however. Born and raised a French Catholic, she subscribed to the Sufi Quarterly and the Christian Science Bulletin. Most summers she could be found dancing at the Shepherds’ Nine, the Noyes School of Rhythm. She attended seminars on Creative Maturity. She diligently filled out the Creative Maturity Inventory. *In 1950 she took a training course at the Hudson Shore Labor School. She corresponded regularly with Ethel Bret Harte, about matters astrological. I don’t think any of us really knew her.

*”You get a Creative Maturity Quotient by adding up all the mature answers which are “yes” for odd numbered questions and “No” for even numbered questions. The CMQ is whatever percentage you are of 100. If you answer 50 questions maturely, you are half way toward a Creative Maturity with a 50 CMQ.” For example, Question #53: Do you live without self-deception?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Please help identify

Upstairs is a rather large old horsehair trunk filled to bursting with letters and photographs belonging to my paternal grandmother. She was born Germaine Levêque in St Vaast-la-Hogue in 1892 and was educated there and in Cherbourg, France. She worked as a teacher and governess in England, Germany and Switzerland before leaving in 1916 to marry Hans Lehner. Around 1920 he bought the house in Hingham where my parents still live. She had 2 sons, and then around 1930 she and Hans separated. They never divorced, presumably because they were Catholic. He stayed in Hingham and raised the boys, while she went from city to city, from hotel to apartment to hotel. Thus far, and I am far from finished, I have documented – via the envelopes of her correspondence – twenty different addresses from 1930 to the 1953, when she more or less settled into the Hotel Vendôme in Boston.
It is not entirely clear why I am in possession of this trunk, which presumably went from place to place with before coming to rest at my parents’ house around the time she died, in 1978. But I can guess: no one but an archivist manqué would take it on.
This is a selection of items I found this morning:
• In her tiny French script, a list of US presidents from GW to FDR
• A sheet torn from a 5-year diary, for March 15. The first four sections are empty. The last one is marked 1948 and reads: Monday. Feeling much better. Strange dream about Duke of Windsor and deep chasms!!!?
• A picture of my father and his brother (circa 1930) on their pony cart in front of the Orchard. I happen to know the pony’s name was Major, as that was one of the memories that as most vivid for Dad right after he had his stroke.
• A photo of Germaine standing in front of an airplane: Imperial Air ways, London. G-EBO. There is a uniformed, capped man standing next to the gangway; otherwise she is alone on the tarmac. She is carrying her hat which looks unfortunately like an upside down chamber pot. I think she was going to or from Greece because it was in a pile of photographs of Greece, in some of which she is actually wearing the aforementioned hat. From Wikipedia I have learned that the plane was a De Havilland 66 Hercules, a seven-passenger plane built in the 1920’s and retired from service in 1942. With a maximum speed of 127 mph and a range of 525 miles, it was obviously not used for transatlantic journeys. There, with a keystroke, are more facts about the plane in the picture than I seem to have about my grandmother.
• And this mystery group picture. Like almost every other photograph among the 100’s in the trunk, this one has no identifying names or dates. Who are these people? What is this gathering of apparently various folks? What brought them all to this nameless place?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Yesterday was first full day of spring and it snowed. The emerging scilla** and daffodils were all covered in fat wet snow. That is not strange. What is strange is that yesterday was also the feast of not 1 or 2, but 3 different saints who gave up on marriage and chose to leave wife and children in order to live in a monastery or convent or up in the hills eating bugs. (I consider this a troubling tendency.)

St Enda of Arran (d. ca. 530) was an Irish prince who was converted by his sister Fanchea, also a saint-to-be. She found him a good convent girl to marry, but when he met her she was dead *and this put him off marriage permanently. In this way he became a monk and ultimately the founder of Irish monasticism.

St Nicholas of Flüe (1417-1487) was a successful farmer who also served as a counselor and judge in his Swiss canton. He had a wife and presumably he liked her well enough because they had ten children. But after a vision of a horse eating a lily, he went up into the hills to live as a hermit, surviving on nothing but the Eucharist for 19 years. (Among saints, this is a common enough form of nourishment that there is a word for it: inedia.) To this day, St Nicholas is beloved in Switzerland and regarded as a patron saint of the sustainable use of open land.

St Benedicta Cambiagio Frassinello (1791-1858) was married for 2 years before she managed to convince her husband that that should live chastely, which they did until her little sister died, and then she joined a convent and her husband became a monk.

* I particularly enjoy imagining how this scene transpired. At what point was it clear that the affianced girl was in fact a corpse? Was it commonplace for a betrothed young lady to neither breathe nor move?
**I associate scilla with the blue pollen the bees starting gathering this time of year, and I am concerned lest they are discouraged.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Not green saints

There is no question about St Patrick's many good qualities, and I am personally in favor of coloring any food, but just in case you are inclined to broaden your horizons, and celebrate any other saint than Patrick today, here is selection.

You can salute the first century St Joseph of Arimathea, of whom “we know nothing authentically” outside of the gospels, but of whom there are numerous myths, fabulations, fabrications and legends. Among them: that he went from Gaul to Britain and the king gave him the island of Yniswitrin (later called Glastonbury) smack in the middle of a swamp, where Joseph built a church of wattles. Another story is that Joseph and his 150 companions all sailed from Gaul to Britain aboard the shirt of his son. Much later come the stories that Joseph brought with him 2 silver cruets (the Holy Grail) one containing Jesus’ blood, and the other his sweat.
Then we have St Agricola (6th century) best known for his simple and saintly life, for eating very little and standing when he did eat, and translating the relics of the recluse St Didier to his own cathedral at Chalon sur Saône.
I have already written about St Gertrude of Nivelles, whose own mother cut off her hair and shaped it like a monk’s tonsure, to ensure that no foolhearty man would think of marrying her. She has much to recommend her.
Nothing is known about the 12th century recluse St Diemut of Saint Gall.
St Jan of Sarkander was born in 1576 during the Protestant Reformation, educated in Prague, ordained in Austria. In the long and repulsive human history of torturing other humans, his ordeal was exceptional: he was tortured on the rack, branded with torches, racked some more, covered with pitch, sulfur, oil and feathers and then set on fire. And he had the terrible misfortune to survive and linger for a long painful month.
Comparisons are odious, really, but surely St Paul of Cyprus suffered as much on this day in 775, when he was crushed between two boards, torn with iron combs and then hung upside down over a slow fire and roasted to death, because he refused to trample a crucifix.
I am happy to report that Saint Withberga was born a princess in East Anglia, became a nun when her father was killed in battle, and died in her sleep in her convent in 743.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A floral bouquet of randomness

I know that it is possible to move a large tree, if you have enough money and large equipment and men with shovels, but as with many things (miracles for instance) I really need to see this operation to believe it.
And we did see it.
Down the road from us is a beautiful stone villa built around 1840 that is being demolished, probably this week.
This is the sort of thing that upsets CSB.
CSB does things like salvage wavy old glass from demolition sites in order to have a supply of historically correct glass available to replace any broken panes we might incur. Did you know that an expert can date a pane of glass by the degree of waviness and distortion? Many of the windows in our house go back to the late 18th or early 19th century, and for them we need glass that is thicker (about 1/8th”) and more distorting. Hence we have a stash of old glass in the shed.
But to return to large trees on the move. The stone house that is about to be no more is surrounded by several massive wisterias. And they are being dug up and stored in enormous wooden boxes. In order to expose the roots, they first had to dig holes about the size of station wagons. Several holes, one for each separate plant. Then the root ball, about the size of a VW bug, is bundled. Then comes the heavy machinery.
Unlike so much else that we hold dear, wisteria is actually native to the eastern United States. Depending on whom you ask, it was named for Dr. Caspar Wistar or Charles Jones Wister, Sr, both of Pennsylvania. But as you can see, the names are spelt differently, and that signifies.
Massive as the uprooted wisterias down the road are, they are mere fledglings compared to the largest wisteria in the US. That one is in Sierra Madre, California and covers an entire acre and weighs 250 tons.
Because of its ability to climb either clockwise or counterclockwise, wisteria is the Patron Plant of the Ambidextrous.

Saint Seraphina, or Fina is not the patron saint of white violets, but she should be. (This is not an entirely arbitrary sequitur; her feast was 2 days ago.) During her short lifetime (1238-1253) she was known chiefly for her illness and her determination to increase her suffering. She refused to rest in a bed, and instead insisted on lying on an oak plank, where she remained for 6 years in one position. Beneath her the wood rotted and was filled with worms, but still she did not move. Then she died and the townspeople moved her body and discovered that the formerly rotten wood was now a field of sweet-smelling white violets. That is the sort of miracle I think must be seen to be believed. The best we can offer is Ghirlandaio’s famous painting. In San Gemignano, where she lived, white violets bloom about the time of feast day.
We are not in Sam Gemignano, so the chicken yolks are not bright orange and we have snowdrops in bloom. Every year around this time I head for the woods to find the snowdrops (galanthus nivalis). Because memory and its losses are much on my mind these days, when I remember, I have been very excited to learn that galantamine, an extract made from the flower and bulbs of snowdrops, can be used to treat Alzheimer’s. But that is not all.
I had never heard of Lucid Dreaming, or not as a distinct phenomenon, separate from plain old dreaming. That is, I regularly dream and I am occasionally lucid. Lucid Dreaming has its own entry in Wikipedia. Lucid Dreaming has given rise to some very delightful acronyms: WILD, DILD and MILD, meaning Wake-Initiated Lucid Dreaming, or Dream etc or Meditation etc. And galantamine (C17H21NO3 ) is also taken to induce Lucid Dreaming. Which makes me wonder why we don’t have the acronym GILD. But not as much as I wonder how the same drug can be used to treat Alzheimer’s and induce super-vivid dreams or oven out-of-body experiences (OBE’s).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Civic duty

This is what I did on Friday. I do not think anyone is really interested, but I have this desperate need to justify those interminable hours on the third floor of the county courthouse.
But first: before I left the house, an ungrateful chicken escaped the lovely henhouse while the intrepid CSB was letting them into their yard and giving them their breakfast treats. She headed for the hills, the woods, freedom and Broadway, and despite our calling, lurching, beseeching and beckoning, despite my very appealing plaid (Black Watch) pajamas, she would not be caught.
Did she realize how vulnerable she is to the world and its predators? Did she realize there is a red-tailed hawk out there polishing his curved beak in anticipation of chicken tartar for lunch?

I drive to the county courthouse to report for Day #2 of Jury Duty. Thus far, I am one of 90+ citizens who answered the summons and now sit on hard wooden benches while the judge and attorneys execute voir dire. If voir dire takes this long for a piddling drug case, then I tremble to think what transpires in a big case.
I park beneath the White Plains library and put lots of change into a parking meter. Then I realize that this is a 1-hour meter and I need to park in a 12-hour meter spots, so I bid adieu to those swallowed quarters and move my car far into the bowels of the parking lot, and feed every last bit of change I have into the meter, until I finally buy myself 71/2 hours of parking.
Inside the courthouse I pay 75¢ for hot water, so I can make a cup o’ tea. The clerk is blind and has several earrings. He never smiles.
At 9:35 we file in and take our seats in courtroom #304. The bailiff with a chevron mustache takes roll call, in random order. We all respond to our garbled names, and then we wait. I do the Friday crossword, but struggle with the city on the Niagara Escarpment, because I have never heard of the Niagara Escarpment,** though it seems like a place I might want to visit.
There are 18 potential jurors seated in the juror box on the left. They are the ones being questioned, for now. The rest of us watch, listen, surreptitiously text, and do the crossword.
At 10:10 we all get up and go into the hall to wait.
At 10:30 we return to the courtroom.
The judge* picks up where he stopped yesterday, with questions 10 – 15 on the juror questionnaire. He takes every opportunity to repeat, verbatim, his exhortation that the chosen jurors must interpret the law according to his diktat, and not consult with one’s brother-in-law the attorney, or base a judgment on the character of one’s former husband the Yonkers policeman. Can you do that? He asks, again and again. When the answer is, I think so, or I will try, the judge repeats his question until he gets the desired answer. I find this technique fondly reminiscent of my son’s 5-year old belief that if he repeated his request enough times, I would change my answer to the affirmative.
The Assistant DA, who will prosecute the case, asks of the empaneled 18: You all have common sense, don’t you? Can you use your common sense? To my chagrin, no one answers with a resounding no.
11:00 we all file out of the courtroom for a 5-minute recess.
11:15 we all file back into the courtroom. The Asst. DA continues his questioning with these zingers: Can you be fair? Do you understand the concept of reasonable doubt, which has been explained no less than 8 times this morning? Again, sadly, no one answers no.

11:40 we all file out again.
11:55 the gum-chewing policewoman calls us all back into the courtroom.
The mustachioed bailiff calls out the 5 lucky chosen jurors. The liberated 13 skip out of the courtroom.
The bailiff spins his bingo basket and calls out 18 more names. But not mine. The 18 take their places in the jury box. Now, as we have done with the previous 2 batches of 18, we hear their vital statistics as they respond to questions 1 through 9 on the juror questionnaire. I now know the name, birthplace, education, marital status, occupation, number of children and the ages and whereabouts of those children, of 54 fellow citizens. I also know who among them has been the victim of, or witness to, or party to, a crime; I know which of their close relatives or friends, and in some cases, their not very close relatives or friends, has been a victim of a crime. I know about the pediatrician whose identity was stolen. I know about the mother–of-3 from Bedford who was sexually assaulted as a teenager. I heard from the young man who was attacked because of his race. When prodded, one woman says that yes, her best friend was murdered, but that was in Bulgaria. Does a murder in Bulgaria count? In this courtroom, of course it does, and please give us details. One fellow, a sales manager, was at his best friend’s apartment when there was a drug bust. I heard about the young woman’s ex-boyfriend who is in jail now on drug charges. The judge remarks on the wisdom of this fellow being an ex. He laughs at his own humor. Another upright soul asserts that he was arrested years ago for unlawful possession of marijuana, “for which I am not ashamed”, he says. Thereby assuring that he will not be gracing this jury. We hear the complicated story of a woman’s brother in Texas whose neighbor shot a bow and arrow into his house and pierced his refrigerator. Charges were not filed, because they were all good friends.

I wonder how the chickens are enjoying this fine weather, as I am not. For the sake of the escapee, I am grateful it is not as cold as yesterday.

12:50 we break for lunch. We are enjoined to return promptly at 2:15
I go to the local diner and read the paper. It too is full of crime. There is the Russian mobster who was convicted of killing and chopping up people in order to steal their identities. Their body parts were found in a New Jersey Nature preserve.
A 57-year-old mother stabbed her 38-year-old son to death. He had cerebral palsy. I pay special attention to their ages, as her age is close to mine, but she bred at a much earlier age, 19 to be exact.
A Russian citizen, who is in prison on arms-dealing charges, has filed complaints because he cannot get a proper vegetarian diet in prison. His wife says he is forced to survive on eggs and tea made with tepid tap water.
A long Island man who murdered a motivational speaker claims that the man hired him to “do a Kevorkian”.
It is a very nice diner, with actual jukeboxes in every booth. I would play some Neil Sedaka, but all my small change was fed into the maw of the parking meter underground.
I worry about the AWOL chicken back home. Has she been eviscerated by a hawk? Is she quaking with fear underneath the back porch? Or is she roosting in an adjacent tree mocking her sisters?

2:15 the jury pool are milling around the hallway outside courtroom #304.
2:35 we are called back in.
The judge continues questioning the 18 empaneled. He is on Question #13: Are you or is anyone related to you an attorney, a policeman or in the military?
We learn whose father, brother, nephew, cousin is an attorney and what kind of attorney they are. We learn who is related to a detective in the NYPD and what kind of cases he works on: mostly drugs.
Question #14 is: Do you have any moral or religious reason that would prevent you from passing judgment in this courtroom?
No one answers yes. My hopes are dashed, yet again.
Question #15: Is there anything else you want to tell us?
Yes, I am scheduled for a root canal and I really don’t want to miss the appointment, says empanelled person #7. Judge repeats for the 4th time today his parable – of which he is so clearly proud – of how, if the world continued to function after the assassination of JFK, then surely the world will continue to function while person X performs his civic duty, completely missing the point that person #7 apparently would rather get a root canal than stay in this judge’s courtroom. Juror #14 explains that she is scheduled to go a business trip first thing Monday morning. The judge repeats his parable in full.
No one expresses concern about her chickens running amok in her absence, but that is what I am worried about.
2:55 we all exit the courtroom while the judge speaks privately with the jurors who are unwilling (wisely in my opinion) to share their traumatic life experiences with a roomful of strangers.

I could be chasing a chicken now. Instead I am pacing the third floor hallway, counting my steps. No I am not OCD.

3:30 we all return to the courtroom and sit while the Asst. DA and defense attorney repeat their earlier performances.
4:00 exeunt omnes.
4:45 we all enter the courtroom. The names of the 5 chosen jurors are called. The magic number of 12 plus 2 alternates has been achieved. The rest are dismissed. The relief is palpable. Those friendships forged in the waiting outside courtroom #304 disappear like contrails.

*This judge, in his why-we-should-all-be grateful-to-serve on-a-jury-in-this-great country spiel, informed us that we – the assembled Westchester-ites - were not in Libya or Bahrain this week, but instead were rolling out of bed and heading to our yoga classes, and aren't we the lucky ones? This was addressed to a group of 90+ people that included old and young men and women, medical salesmen, contractors, nurses, a neuro- physicist, retired FBI agents, a somewhat humorous writer, landscapers, and high-school cafeteria workers, among others. I later discovered that I was not the only one insulted and not a little outraged by his condescending and completely inapt generalizations.

**Hamilton, Ontario.