Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Whitney Bees in the News

In case you were in Madagascar studying carnivorous fossa a few weeks ago and missed reading the Talk of the Town in the New Yorker - the one with the cover featuring yet another iconic American tale of vacationing with our dogs, in the vein of Travels with Charley, The Incredible Journey and Old Yeller, but, as Gail Collins wisely reminds us, different – and in case you want to know what really happened on the roof of the Whitney that winter day, just click here and find out.
Yes, the estimable Calvin Tompkins and the charming Dodie Kazanjian were there with CSB and yours truly, winterizing the bees and extracting bee barbs from exposed body parts. That is all true, and you know it is true because the Fact Checker made sure it was true.
The Fact Checker was marvelous. Before he even called us he had spoken with an entomologist at the Agricultural Extension at UC-Davis to check all my bee facts. (I think it was UC Davis. But please be aware that SQD has not been fact-checked.) Also, he wanted to ascertain that CSB is as tall as he is, and me, as short. I could have spoken all day with the Fact Checker.
While it is true – and this too was fact-checked – that CSB did not wear a bee jacket, it went unmentioned that I have recently acquired for him a very stylish bee jacket from Sheriff’s of England, hoping that he will occasionally wear it and get stung by fewer bees. It is probably a vain hope. And bee stings are good for your arthritis anyway.
Likewise unmentioned, but true, is that we burn sage in our bee smoker. We grow the sage in our garden and then dry it in the fall, suspending picturesque nosegays from a beam in the basement. The thing about sage is that it smells like pot when it burns, or at least it smells like pot as I recall it, and sometimes – as we are tending the bees - I find myself looking around to see who has a joint. It’s just an odd moment, a flash, of living multiple lives.
Other unchecked facts: Calvin wore a leather jacket. Dodie had enviable fur-lined clogs whose provenance I might have inquired about had I known her better, or at least not just met her for the first time. Bees don’t like leather or fur, but we didn’t mention that.
But really, the question you are all wondering about, the really pressing question, is: What do the bees on the roof think about this year’s Biennial? The question should be: Do bees even think about Biennials? But since that answer would be something of a dead end, we will go with the first question. Bees prefer flowers to collages and video, but performance art involving nectar is appreciated in a post-modernist way.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Highly Redacted Life and Times of Brigitte M.L.K…: The First Half-Century

It’s 1962. Kennedy is in the White House and Jackie has made pillboxes the headgear of choice. The Pope has excommunicated Fidel Castro. K-Mart opens its first store. Then, on March 25, comes the Annunciation, when we celebrate the Archangel Gabriel heading to Judea to find the young and dyslexic Mary, mooning around trying to spell Immaculate so that it does not end up looking like Inoculate; and he gives her the exciting news that she will be the mother of God. How do you spell that? She asks.
Meanwhile, in the environs of Boston the quite obviously not immaculate Monique is on her way to the hospital to deliver herself of yet another child. Her eldest child, the soul of thoughtfulness and discretion, tells her, “Don’t come back if it’s a boy. Trade him, or something.”
A week later Monique returns with the adorable bundle of musical precocity, smelling sweetly in her politically-correct organic cotton diapers. Brigitte, as she will henceforth be known on alternate Tuesdays, is greeted with glee by her doting family.
Later that same year, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is published so that instead of merely experiencing the degradation of the planet, the world can now read about it and lament.

A year later and it is 1963. The infant Birgitta has proved herself to be the cutest child EVER to have walked on this earth. Anyone who suggests there has ever been a cuter girl-child will be drawn, quartered, disemboweled, garroted, grilled, fricasseed, and fed to wild beasts by Christine, who at age 11 has become something of an expect in gruesome forms of martyrdom.

Soon, young Burgette starts kindergarten. Following in her brother Peter’s footsteps – but with that preternaturally adorable donut thing in her hair – she masters woodshop and cross-dressing. When the French begin nuclear testing on an atoll in Polynesia, she says “Zut alors!” and asks her teacher if the class can boycott escargots on the lunch menu.

It is now 1967 and the country barely survives the civil rights turmoil; likewise Birgitia barely survives being crash test dummy for her brothers' ice boat, but learns the potential of renewable energy.

In 1969, the youngest Lehner lobbies for a class trip to see the Cuyahoga River in flames. The flames reach 5 stories. Burguette quotes, “A picture is worth a thousand words, and a putrid smell is even more powerful.” Her teacher takes them all to the Arnold Arboretum instead.

Bargette turns 10 in 1972 and it is no coincidence that after lengthy congressional mouthing off, filibustering and nose-picking, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act is finally passed. Young Bargette celebrates by killing a colony of paper wasps in a politically correct and holistic way: she drowns them in boiling oil.

It is 1975 and Birdet officially enters puberty. All three of her sophisticated and mature make constant stupid jokes about sacrificing virgins. Because there is absolutely nothing wrong with endlessly repeating a good joke – or even a very bad joke –they harp on the sacrificial virgin theme so often that Mass Conversion takes place. In other news, Congress passes the Hazardous Waste Transportation Act, ensuring that no hazardous waste will ever travel Coach class again.

Bargetta graduates from Milton in 1980. Jimmy Carter is defeated and Reagan is elected; this causes many to despair but not young Bargetta, she is heading to Brown U. and knows she will soon join the army of environmental fighters.

For anyone with a brain, or lungs, the following years were challenging if not completely disheartening. VP George Bush proposed eliminating the phase-out of leaded gas and the US. Congress amended the Endangered Species Act in order to build a dam that did not generate electric power and flooded important Cherokee historical sites. Over in India, Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal leaked toxic chemicals. Chernobyl blew up. On the plus side, Baguetta met the love of her life, the man of her dreams, her very own dreamboat, sweetheart and yummikins, and I do not allude to Kermit the Endangered Amphibian. Nope, it was that wild and woolly Harold aka Hal, K-. It is rumored that they had wild sex while suspended from trapezes in the Brown squash courts, but we don’t like to repeat such lurid rumors.

A brief glance at the backlists of Cambridge University Press from 1984 to 1986 will be enough to make manifest what Bargette was doing there:
Nordic Skiing and Alexandrian Couplets: The Lacanian View
Images of Clean Water and Baths in Seventeenth Century Salon Paintings
Trimarans: How they Signify in a Bifurcated Society
Dam Destruction and Liberation Theology in the Amazonian Basin

In either 1987 or 1988 Burgit married Harold “Hal” K-, that same fellow with whom she cavorted on the trapezes, or not, depending on which version you believe.
In grad school Burgit’s emphasis was on the Judicial Imperative to Lobotomize Climate-Change Deniers for their Own Good. She received High Honors, and a Gift Certificate for a Vaginal Ultra Sound with the Republican and or Mormon doctor of her choice. Because yes, she was pregnant. Though, being a virgin, she has no idea how this happened.
A Gallup poll of 1990 finds 76 percent of Americans call themselves "environmentalists." Brigitta is elated until she discovers that by “environmentalist” most Americans mean “someone who lives in the environment and is not dead yet”. She takes young Matthew toddling in the woods and teaches him how to hug trees.
1995 proves to be a complex year. For the first time in decades the Republicans gain control of the US Congress and their first order of business is to kill all environmentalists but only after forcing them to undergo vaginal ultrasounds.

In 1999 Bridgett and Christine accompany the Aged P’s to Ethiopia and they personally discover the ancient hiding place of the Arc of the Covenant. They decide to keep this a secret.

By 2003 the Bush Administration has compiled the worst environmental record of any US president in history. Under fire by Bush and Congressional Republicans are the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the toxic waste Superfund, the Right to Know Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and many more. Bridgot and Carl and their families go the Galapagos Islands where they find Charles Darwin rolling over in his grave and weeping.

Despite the urging of his advisors, McCain chooses Sarah Palin over Brigitte as his running mate, and he goes on to lose spectacularly to Obama in 2008. Matthew goes off to college- Hope and change come to America, and Matthew.

In 2010 Brigote visits the Arctic aboard a derelict Russian icebreaker named for a Stalinist starlet; her passion for polar bears is re-ignited while watching a polar bear mama masticate seal flesh while winking. The following year, the Arctic sea ice reaches an historic low.

In the summer of 2011 The Climate Change Denier conference takes place in Washington, intending to restore ‘scientific method” to climate science. Brigette and Hal ride their tandem bike down to the capital and pass out life jackets to anyone who lives within 20 miles of the shore, and barf bags. Then they bike back to Maine.

And finally we arrive at 2012, a leap year and the occasion of Brigitte’s fiftieth birthday. Happy Birthday and may the next fifty be equally happy, busy and a joy to behold.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Found and Lost

On the most recent Orphean voyage into the parental basement, I found several items of interest, or at least fleeting interest, or passing interest, and some of no interest at all, but I will not mention them.
Among the items in the first categories are:
• Rand McNally 1929 Auto Road Map of the New England States, in which the following roads frequented by me do not appear: Saw Mill Parkway, Routes 684, 84, 95, Massachusetts Turnpike. What does appear: Route 9 threading north from NYC through the western side of Westchester.
• 13 pictures of H.G Wells extracted from newspapers and magazines
• Jeroboam of Chateau La Tour du Pin Figeac Saint-Emilion 1962 (I have Googled this vintage and it appears that people are still paying money for this wine, but that does not mean it is actually drinkable. And if it is anything like some other venerable bottles found in the basement, it will not be. Sadly.)
• Box with best label: Old (but not antique) corkscrews
• 47 empty jam jars
Harvard Lampoon, November 1949 “In this issue: Yale societies” by G. A. Plimpton ’48. Cigarette ads feature the best graphics. (Soon to appear on eBay)
• A wad of 50 Deutschmark bills, circa 1919
But one thing affected me most: a copy of Max Kraus’s 1941 Honors Thesis at Harvard,”The Alexandrian Poets in Rome and the German Minnesingers”, still clamped between the hard black covers of those folders we were still using for our theses in the 1970’s. On the second page of the thesis I read this endearing note: “Since my command of Middle High German is extremely limited, I was forced to use translations into modern German of the Minnesingers as source material.” Which leads me to believe that he had some command of Middle High German, and that is impressive.
What was Max Kraus’s thesis doing in my parents’ basement, in a cabinet that appears to have been untouched since the 1940’s? And who was Max Kraus?
I asked my father who presumably should know as he was living in this same house in 1941. He told me about his father, Hans Lehner, who was born in a small village outside Augsburg, Germany. Hans was quite smart and soon outgrew the schooling in the village, and went to Augsburg to study. In Augsburg he lived with the Kraus family, and to pay for his room and board, he tutored their young children. By 1909 Hans was working for a German bank as a cotton grader and broker, and came to work in the United States. He stayed. He married, had sons, started businesses. Then in 1937 Hans was able to help several old friends emigrate to the United States, and among them, he brought over the Kraus family. Now Max was the smart young man away from home, and Hans sent him to Harvard, where he wrote this thesis in the basement.
Where is he now? I asked my father. What happened after Harvard? My father said they didn’t know because after Harvard they never saw Max Kraus again. Or they must have, at least once, because here was the thesis. Why would he disappear? I asked. No idea.
Because it is ridiculously easy, I Googled Max Kraus, then added Augsburg and Harvard to the search, and voila, I found an obituary for Max Kraus, a retired USIA official, whose posts included that of a US spokesman at the Vietnam peace talks and the SALT II talks, and head of VOA in Africa. During World War II he worked on psychological warfare projects. Later he wrote a memoir called They All Came to Geneva. I couldn’t find the book in our library, but I bought it online for $1 plus postage. Perhaps the book would explain.
It did not. On the subject of his early life he is cryptic and terse in the extreme: “I had come to the United States from my native Germany in January 1937, a refugee from Hitler’s Reich. After graduating from Harvard in 1941, I volunteered for the U.S. Army…”
Max Kraus went on to travel and dine out with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Harry Belafonte, Vernon Walters and Jane Fonda, but once upon a time he cared about Alexandrian poets and Minnesingers. Once he spent serious time reading Hellenistic elegiac poetry and lyrical seven-line love songs in Middle High German, and also in modern German translations. But he never retrieved his thesis from the basement.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mattress Walkers

You probably cannot read the text in this news clipping from March 8, 1937, so I will retype it for you.
100 Mattress Walkers
Washington, March 8 (AP)- The Census Bureau’s manual of occupations lists about 25,000 ways of earning a living, but it overlooks mattress walkers.
Dr. Vergil Reed, acting director of the bureau, vouched today, however, for this exclusive group.
He said there are at least 100 professional mattress walkers in the country, earning their way walking the kinks out of mattresses. They stamp extra hard on hard spots, he said, and put the new mattress into a flat, even state.

I can print this here, but I cannot answer the many questions I am sure you now have, such as: Where do mattress walkers do their job? Who hires them: mattress stores or private mattress owners? Do they get paid by the hour, or by the mattress? Are they required to wear special shoes? What is the average weight of a mattress walker? If you have a lumpy mattress, where do you go to find a qualified mattress walker?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Get your Car Blessed Today

Are you wondering why everywhere you go today you keep running into priests with STP embroidered on their chasubles sprinkling cars with holy water and making the sign of the cross over yellow cabs driven by Sikhs, Ethiopians and Zoroastrians?* Then I will tell you.
It is of course the feast of St Frances of Rome. Still confused? Frances was a holy widow in 15th century Rome who did her good deeds at night, preceded by a guardian angel - in the shape of an 8-year old child - bearing a lantern. Now you get it. The lantern represents headlights, and headlights are on cars and even though Frances never saw a car, she is a saint and Italian and that is enough to make her the patroness of cars and cabbies.
St Frances is sadly ineffective at repairing dents, dings and scratches; on the other hand, and don't quote me on this, I have heard that she has a special relationship with the Parking Authorities.

* While Catholics used to hold the world record in the Conversion-of-the-Unwilling-and-Those-who-Already-Have-a-Religion Sweepstakes, they have recently been overtaken by the Mormons.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What do an indicted brothel-keeper and CSB have in common?
A fondness for pigs.

"Charged as Madam, and Defended as Entrepreneur and Pig Rescuer
Published: March 6, 2012
According to Manhattan prosecutors, Anna Gristina is a well-connected madam who made millions of dollars running a brothel on the Upper East Side that catered to wealthy clients, where passers-by say fancy cars were seen idling past midnight. And when she was arrested last month, they said, she was with a Morgan Stanley banker whom she had just met about expanding her business. [...]
And to Susan Magidson, who worked with Ms. Gristina rescuing pet pigs from unsuitable homes, she is a demure, plain-living mother of four with a special empathy for the animals they helped match with adoptive families.

“We identify the pigs who need homes and we try to match-make,” Ms. Magidson said in a telephone interview from Bucks County, Pa., where the two women work with Ross Mill Farm and Piggy Camp. [...]
Camilo Ruan, 36, a salesman, said he lived a block away and walked by late at night to go to the gym. He often saw nicely dressed women going into the building, which he said was nothing unusual for the neighborhood. But what did seem “extremely strange,” he said, were the fancy cars frequently waiting in the street at 11 p.m. or midnight.

Ms. Magidson, who has placed six pigs with Ms. Gristina for foster care over the years, said Ms. Gristina was not “flashy or rich.”

Pigs are one of Anna’s passions,” she said. “When people love pigs, in my opinion, they are special and unique — and in my opinion, the chosen ones — because they’re just such a special animal, highly intelligent, emotional animal, so it’s like working with orphans.”"
(from the NY Times,3/7/12)

It's hard to know where to start with the tasteless joke, the lewd allusions, the ribald juxtapositions...the modern dilemma of too many choices. So for once I will refrain.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What else could be wrong with Ötzi?

I've always had a soft spot for Ötzi, maybe because of that appealing umlaut atop his initial letter, or maybe it is just my thing for sensitive caveman-types. (It definitely is not his ponytail, if that is what that hank of hair is.) So I was distressed to read this article in yesterday's Times, about the all the things that may have, could have ailed poor Ötzi. Was he also allergic to peanuts?

Lactose Intolerant, Before Milk Was on Menu
Published: March 5, 2012

Since it was discovered in 1991, preserved in 5,300 years’ worth of ice and snow in the Italian Alps, the body of the so-called Tyrolean Iceman has yielded a great deal of information. Scientists have learned his age (about 46), that he had knee problems, and how he died (by the shot of an arrow).
Now, researchers have sequenced the complete genome of the iceman, nicknamed Ötzi, and discovered even more intriguing details. They report in the journal Nature Communications that he had brown eyes and brown hair, was lactose intolerant and had Type O blood.

The lactose intolerance makes sense, said Albert Zink, an anthropologist at the European Academy of Research in Bolzano, Italy, who was one of the study’s authors.

“In early times, there was no need to digest milk as an adult because there were no domesticated animals,” Dr. Zink said. “This genetic change took hundreds of years to occur.”

But the scientists were surprised to find that Ötzi had a strong predisposition to heart disease. “If he wasn’t shot with an arrow, it would have been possible that he might have had a heart attack soon after,” Dr. Zink said.

Heart disease is often thought of as a modern problem, associated with rich food and limited physical exertion. “But obviously this disease was present already 5,000 years ago,” Dr. Zink said. “So now we can get a better understanding why such diseases develop.”

Researchers also suspect the man may have had Lyme disease, and further study could yield insight into the disease’s origins.

Today, Ötzi can be viewed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Monday, March 5, 2012

I did not steal those relics

Just in case you are wondering, I have not recently been to Dublin, and no, I do not have the preserved heart of St Laurence O'Toole. Nor do I have the jawbone of St Brigid. Well, perhaps St Brigid's canines, but that is because someone's birthday is coming up this month.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

110 years today

Today my grandmother, widely known as Bonne Maman, would be 110. If she were alive. She is not, which means that I get to tell the story of her life any way I choose. Even when she was alive, she generously allowed me to tell the story of her life as extravagantly or comically as I chose. Which should give you an idea of what a delightful person she was.

When Reine Marie Garât was born in Mons, on March 4, 1902, King Leopold II sat on the throne of Belgium. Nowadays, Leopold is best known as the owner of the Congo Free State, about which there was nothing free, and which was one of the most brutal and cruel regimes in history. My beloved grandmother was 8 months old when an intrepid Italian anarchist fired three shots at Leopold, and missed.
Young Reine went to convent school at an early age and there she learned to write with her right hand because, as everyone knows, the left hand belongs to the devil. In order to accomplish this task, the nuns tied her left hand to the chair to prevent her from using it. This technique worked, and Reine had exquisite handwriting all her life. With both hands.
Belgium was occupied during the First World War, and several German officers were billeted at their home outside Antwerp. She pointedly explained to me that one officer was Bavarian and despite the fact of his being the enemy he was a kind man who missed his dirndl and leiderhosen-clad children back home; but the other officer was Prussian and he was cold and stiff-backed and disliked children of any nationality. Or so thought the young Reine.
After the war she married the dark and handsome Karl. His parents did not oppose their marriage: he was Protestant, she was Catholic – because their eldest son had likewise fallen in love with a Catholic young woman, and when their marriage was forbidden, they jumped together from the spire of the Antwerp Cathedral.
When I was 12, Bonne Maman took me on one of those iconic and wonderful European adventures, when grandmothers take their (lucky, privileged) granddaughters to Europe, by boat, mais oui, and tell them stories. We were in Antwerp when she took me to the cathedral and told me about these young lovers who leapt to their death. Then, she told me the young man was her husband’s brother. Then, she told me she had another husband before my grandfather, Bon Papa. It was unbearably romantic. Later we went to visit her first mother-in-law, Karl’s ancient mother, now living in a rococo apartment in – of all places – a convent.
But six months after the war Karl died. On the very last day of the war, and foolishly not wearing his gas mask, Karl gassed as the German army retreated and discharged all their unused weaponry.
As she was a very young widow, Reine’s parents expected that she would return to their home. But she did not. She moved to Brussels and learned to type and translate, and got a job. Her plan was to work, then go to the League of Nations as a translator, and travel the world. But after about 6 years of this, she succumbed to the lure of motherhood, and agreed to marry Arnold, her boss and a charming man. But first he went on a business trip to Argentine and Chile, and sent back photographs of himself, to prove how much weight he had lost.
Soon after they married, Arnold was offered a great job managing an oil company in Alexandria, Egypt. But this would mean moving his new wife to a foreign land, far from the grey skies of Belgium. Reine considered the grey skies of Belgium and the heavy soups, and immediately said that she would love to move to Egypt.
She adored Egypt. She adored the weather, picnics in the desert, palm trees, dates and costume balls. She returned to Belgium for the birth of her first child, my mother, but stayed in Alexandria for the birth of her son, Claude. During most of their years in Egypt, King Farouk I perched on the throne. He was extremely fat (in CIA internal memos he was referred to as FF, for Fat F---er), had execrable taste in furniture and décor, and amassed a world-class collection of pornography. When she deemed me old enough to know such things, Bonne Maman told me how favored members of the European community in Cairo were sometimes invited to a special viewing of Farouk’s porn stash. She implied, but did not say, that naturally she and Bon Papa would never have accepted such an invitation.

Above: Reine shaving Arnold while camping in the Sahara.
In 1952 Gamel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, who then went into exile in Morocco and became even fatter.
I could go on (&on) about the long and checkered history of my grandmother and the monarchy, but time is fleeting, so I will not. Or not this time. Bonne Maman did survive many kings and lame duck princes to become a most beloved grandmother and great-grandmother. In her 80’s she developed Alzheimer’s but continued to be ambidextrous, and charming in French and English, as well as a language known only to herself.
So once again, Joyeux Anniversaire chère Bonne Maman.