Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My father, reads SQD, but can't figure out how to leave a comment, and this is probably a good thing because his typing has become extremely creative of late. So he just emailed me - the email was dictated to Josephine, his dictaphone, and then typed by his secretary, hence it is legible - this comment to the blog about hairdressers.(See below).
"You might want to mention that I am probably the only man in America who has his eyebrows combed each morning and the stray larger ones removed every month or two."
Of course he is referring to his excellent hair care by his wife,my mother.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Last night was World Book Night (also Shakespeare’s birthday and the feast of St. George the Dragon-Slayer) and all over the world – or at least the USA & the UK – people like me are giving away books to other people. I learned about – and was recruited for – WBN, from my friend Meg, who works for American Booksellers Association, one of the WBN sponsors and huge advocates for independent booksellers and books. This is the first year for WBN in the US, and we hope it takes off like the bubonic plague in the middle ages.
The idea is that the “givers” (an appealing label, I think; Samaritans might be even better) choose a book from the list assembled by booksellers and librarians, and then on the appointed evening give away 20 free copies of that book to non- or light-readers. The list of books was a good one so it was no problem to come up with a book I could be proud to distribute. In my case, it was Patti Smith’s memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Then there was the question of where to give away the free books. Many of my frequent hangouts – the Hastings library, my backyard, the chicken coop - were not suitable. So I chose the Yonkers train station, at rush hour, when the commuters are returning from their labors and might be in need of just this book.
At the appointed hour, I put all the books in a canvas satchel, and attached my WBN Giver button to my lapel, so as not to be mistaken for a cultish recruiter, and most wisely – I persuaded CSB to join me.
We positioned ourselves at the front door of the train station. Northbound Metro-North rains pulled in every few minutes and disgorged their passengers. Meanwhile sirens wailed down the block and several police cars and 3 ambulances pulled up and parked any which way next to the little green space beside the station. Policemen gathered on the sidewalk and talked among themselves. More policemen arrived. CSB stood just outside the station and announced, “It’s World Book Night. Free Books,” to each new wave of commuters. After thrusting copies of books at several people who actually turned me down, that is, they actually said, no, they did not want a free book, I tried to refine my technique. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want a free book, a good book recommended by yours truly. I had a lot to learn. CSB encouraged me target people who looked like potential readers. But what does a potential reader look like? Glasses and pointy heads? You can imagine the difficulty.
The next person to whom I offered a free book asked what was going on with all the police. I said we had no idea. He kept walking. Another man stepped out of the station and saw the swarming policemen, then looked up at CSB and asked if there had been shooting. There had not. Then a middle-aged woman emerged and I approached her and said it was World Book Night and all over the country people were giving away free books. She kept walking, and I followed along. I asked her if she would like a free copy of Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir. She walked a little faster. Back at the canvas bag, CSB suggested it was not a good idea to chase people down the block talking about the lyrical qualities of a book even if you only want to give them a free copy of Just Kids.
How would you like to be chased down the street by a nut waving a book? he gently asked.
I get your point, I said. And tried to restrain myself in the future.
Actually I did get a little better. I stood still and extolled World Book Night and announced that we had free books – absolutely free – to give away. A taxi driver who’d been waiting for a fare came over and asked for a book! I was so excited that I asked if we could take his picture. We did. He said he was going to start the book that night.
Another man said, Oh I know Patti Smith.
I said, Wow, that’s great.
Then he said, I don’t mean personally. I just know of her. If I knew her personally I might not be as screwed up as I am now.
I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, and it seemed improper to get too nosy there at the train station, but he was very happy with his copy of Just Kids.
Then we noticed that just as quickly and randomly as they had arrived, the police cars and ambulances were driving away. Four policemen emerged from the little park with a man in handcuffs. He wore a plaid shirt and didn’t seem too upset about the handcuffs. They were all standing in front of the statue of Ella Fitzgerald, which may or may not have any connection to the arrest.
Soon enough all the copies of Just Kids were given away and although trains kept blowing their whistles and coming into the station, we went home. I feel confident that next year I will have honed my book-giving skills and I promise not to chase anyone down the sidewalk.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On the subject of beauty salons I am in need of a tutorial. A very remedial tutorial. I never know how to behave. I don’t understand the culture – I feel like an Inuit anthropologist in the Amazonian rainforest. How much am I required to chat, or not to chat? If I do chat, what do I talk about? And whom am I supposed to tip?
Thanks to my mother’s scissors, I never darkened the door, or sat upon the twirling chair, of a beauty salon until I was in my 40’s. And that was thanks to my brothers and the sixties. Many decades ago, in order to ensure that my brothers’ hair would, though long, be neat and well-trimmed, because my mother likes all things to be neat and well-trimmed, even hair, she convinced the local barber to teach her how to cut hair. She was an apt pupil. Since that time, she has cut the hair of all her children, their friends, their spouses, her husband, her nieces and nephews, her grandchildren, and on occasion, her great-granddaughter. Once a year she sends her hair-cutting scissors to a special sharpener in Montana. It seems amazing that she has to send them all the way to Montana, but it would never occur to me to actually question this practice.
If any of us dares to touch or misappropriate her haircutting scissors, we will be met by my mother’s wrath. Not unlike her wonderfully predictable wrath should any of us use take the name of her omelette pan in vain.
So it was only, and with great reluctance, that sometime in my 40’s I realized that four hours was a long way to drive for a haircut, and there were times when I really did need a haircut. So I went to the local beauty salon. Over the years I have been to several; I am clearly not one of those women who form lasting friendships with their hairdressers and share life stories with them, and then, if either of them moves, fly across several states to visit them. I just want a haircut, and I don’t like to have my hair blown dry because I think it is a waste of time and then it looks stupid, and then I want to go home.
My current hair salon is a five-minute walk from my house. It could not be any closer unless my mother and her scissors lived with me, and I think we can all be glad that is not yet the case. The women at the salon are all Albanian, and I am sure you know that Albanians, on account of the many years of Hoxha’s draconian Maoist rule and the country’s virtual isolation, developed a highly sophisticated and unique haircutting technique unmatched in the civilized world.
Another advantage of Albanian hairdressers is that they all speak Albanian and quite reasonably I cannot be expected to converse in Albanian, since my vocabulary in that tongue is limited to a brief exchange about buying green gloves. But even so, at times a few pleasantries are expected. Today the ladies were discussing their favorite Albanian dish, cabbage boiled up with dried pork ribs. They explained this to me, and we all agreed that the addition of pork fat was definitely likely to be a good thing for the cabbage.
Snip snip snip. Then, in order to contribute something to the mix, and because the hairdresser was using precut sheets of aluminum foil to highlight my neighbor’s hair, I mentioned that aluminum foil was first made - that is to say – was first rolled out, in 1910, in Switzerland. Before that it really was tinfoil, and I still call it tinfoil, but it’s really aluminum. It didn’t come to the US until 1913, when foil was used to wrap Life Savers. I cannot say that this interesting fact was met with unmitigated enthusiasm, but Vera did ask when foil was first used for hair highlighting, and I had no idea. I felt like I had failed in some essential rite of passage of womanhood.
I had thought the subject of tinfoil would be more generally interesting than any mention of my book, The Black Swan, by Thomas Mann, which really is amazing, which is in fact blowing my mind. It is a short novel about a middle-aged widow who goes through menopause, then falls madly in love with her son’s English tutor, a 24-year-old American from the Midwest. Rosalie, the widow, is besotted, and confides of her passion to her older daughter, a painter who was born with a clubfoot. The daughter is concerned. When Rosalie’s menopause appears to be reversed, with the return of her menses, she informs her daughter that she is experiencing “the Easter of her womanhood”. Clearly a phrase that warrants some trumpeting.
Perhaps I was wrong in choosing tinfoil over Thomas Mann’s gloss on menopause. Which brings us back to the point, that I need guidance in this arcane culture of the American beauty salon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole, through Rose-tinted Glasses, and Afloat

You may think we live a rather plain and uneventful life here, what with the chickens squawking and the bees swarming and stinkbugs falling from the moldings and the flower bed full of rocks and playing badminton with carpenter bees as shuttlecocks and me staring at a screen all day long and imagining what words to fill it up with, but that is not quite the whole story: last Saturday we went down the rabbit hole and found ourselves in a floating wonderland of stripes, conchiferous patterns, double-yolk eggs, sweet popcorn, herringbone pistachios, a salad bowl nestled inside a life preserver suspended from the ceiling, not to mention a pendulous dining table. Did I mention that the sparkling water in our goblets turned variously pink and blue and green?

It happened thusly: Thanks to our dear friend Jane Evans, we were invited by the remarkable and magical artistic couple, Victoria and Richard Mackenzie-Childs, to dine aboard their home, the Yankee, formerly known as Hook Mountain, formerly as Block Island, formerly as League Island and initially as Machigonne. She is a steel-hulled ferry built in 1907 for the Casco Bay and Harpswell Line; she spent time during WW1 ferrying men from Boston to Bumpkin Island (not to be confused with Button Island or Hull Gut - a favored place of my youth) and back again. After the war, the boat changed names and venues from Ellis Island to the Hudson River to Block Island and to Rhode Island. Then in 1990 Jimmy Gallagher bought the dear tub and installed her at Pier 25 in Manhattan, an erstwhile home of the equally estimable and aged Klang II. Jimmy G began restoring the Yankee and even managed to live aboard while working on her, due to her National Register status and a loophole in the prohibition against boat-dwellers in NYC.
Then in 2003 Victoria and Richard bought the Yankee, and they have continued to restore her to their meticulous standards and in their quirky and loving aesthetic, which involves many more things than the salad bowl suspended from the ceiling. She is now berthed in Hoboken, next to a pier dotted with over 100 dirt filled & irrigated tires which will soon be sprouting a bounty of fruits and vegetables. What other pier can boast an allée of tall sweet corn leading from the edge of New Jersey to an unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline?

To start at the beginning. The first creatures we saw on the Yankee were the chickens on the stern, 5 or 6 Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island reds. Then Richard emerged from below deck and extended the gangplank for us. He was nautically attired in wide pants and a black and white striped jersey, which stripes I would soon come to realize as a theme deeply embedded in the Victoria&Richard style. Starters were served on the stern: an array of fillings for tacos and a basket of snack-size bags of Doritos, and a box of latex gloves. The idea was to pull on the gloves, then open the bag of Doritos and fill it with cheese, or olives, or lettuce or whatever struck your fancy, then shake up the bag to promote commingling, and then eat the results with your latex clad fingers. Fruit drinks dangled over the gunwales keeping cool in the Hudson. I found that stuffing a bag of chips, and then stuffing myself while wearing latex gloves, generated the kind of disconnect I might experience if I tried to perform an appendectomy while on a pogo stick.
The dining table – in what I assume was the main saloon when the Yankee was ferrying passengers - is suspended by heavy gauge rope from the ceiling. Given that the boat almost always swaying this is a very good idea: the table stays relatively flat while the waves lap against the hull. The first course consisted of soft – or perhaps hard – boiled double yolk eggs nestled inside exquisite egg cups, the handiwork of hosts, and popcorn in brown paper bags set atop silver chargers. (The eggs were indeed massive, but I have learned from our chickens that this does not guarantee a double yolk. In fact, we tend to get single oversized yolks. These eggs however had been candled to ensure their double-yolkness. That is the kind of attention to detail that marks everything on the boat and everything we ate.) Victoria was so busy flitting from galley to saloon that she rarely sat down; mostly she was a wraith in flowered embroidery and ribbons, appearing and then disappearing, like marine bioluminescence. When it came time for salad, Richard raised the lead weight that anchored the life saver/salad bowl with block and tackle, and caused the roughage to descend to the table. At the other end of the table, the life saver/breadbasket was likewise lowered. Meanwhile, Jacques the First Mate (we all came away with the sense that all our lives would be enhanced by such a First Mate) poured sparkling water into our goblets and we pondered life’s mysteries as the clear water took on colors. Is this what the guests felt like at the Wedding Feast at Cana? Of course they had already been drinking wine, and we had not. Have I mentioned that this was a temperance meal? In other words, no one’s vision of water turning color was clouded. Perhaps.
It seemed that the main course, a school of striped bass cooking in the oven, was not ready to be served, or eaten. Their fins were still aflutter. But such things do not dampen the spirits; they are opportunities. Victoria served the dessert instead. Perhaps more than anything all evening long, this serendipitous mid-meal dessert irradiated my own plodding normalcy. Cake before fish! Sacre bleu! And the ship did not sink! The fish, when it did arrive, could have sprouted wings and flown to our plates, and I would not have been more astounded than I was by the pre-fish gateau.
I would describe this cake for you if I could. It involved pistachio cream, seeds all the way from Iraq, barberries (but not the poisonous kind) polka-dotting the sides and Turkish pistachios making a herringbone design on the top, and a fringe of purple flowers. This picture does not do it justice.
The fish arrived in due course, pelagic and beady-eyed. CSB, known to regard dead marine creatures askance, graciously slid his bass’s head onto my plate.

And lest you have forgotten, the bubbly water continued to metamorphose. Because the honored guest was newly in love and interested in things matrimonial, she asked for the story of how Victoria and Richard met, fell in love, and married. Like our dinner, it was suspended and suspenseful, in random order, and exquisite. It involved a melted kiln, disembodied voices (I thought of Joan of Arc just then, but held my tongue) and stately elms of the now extinct variety. What did we think as we headed home, in our ordinary car, on the ordinary highway, stopping to buy cheaper-than-in-New-York gas at an ordinary New Jersey gas station? More things are possible than we thought possible. And water can turn lustrous colors, even while you are drinking it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What about dental floss?

My brother (unnamed, you know who you are) just sent me the following article, from a news magazine, The Week, of 13 April 2012. It raises some thorny questions.
"Tampa officials have released a list of items considered a security threat during the Republican National Convention in August, including water pistols, masks and even pieces of string. Firearms are not on the list. State gun laws prohibit any local restriction on the carrying of guns. "If we'd tried to regulate guns, it wouldn't have worked," says a city official."

Does dental floss count as string? I don't know about you, but I don't like to go anywhere without dental floss. Dental floss is useful for many things, such as a tourniquet in cases of snake bit. It can be used to construct the rigging of a thee-masted schooner you are making with a hollowed out watermelon. If you write a book while waiting in line you can bind it with dental floss, just don't forget to paginate. If your hair is flying all over the place you can tie it up with dental floss. While dental floss is not strong enough to be used - in pinch - as a leash for Daisy or Bruno, it works very well for a carpenter bee or a stinkbug, if you happen to catch one and want to take it for a stroll.
And then there is the use for which dental floss is meant.Back when I smoked pot (and this may have precipitated the end of my pot-smoking days), immediately upon feeling the effects of marijuana I felt compelled to floss my teeth vigorously and at length. To floss them until they bled.
And what about masks?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

So around this time last year I introduced you all to St Digitassa of Phalangeville, the patron saint of manicurists, and while she is a very worthy saint, today I needed a figure of somewhat more gravitas.
Because it is the first of April, and despite all my precautions (lock all the doors; believe nothing; do not answer the phone) my most favored son managed to have a large anchovy pizza delivered here, in a box from Tony’s of Delray, Florida, which is a whole other mystery. CSB had to pay for the pizza, and neither of us like anchovy pizza AT ALL. I will let you know tomorrow if it agreed with the chickens.
I should have preemptively called on St Jestrius to protect us against stupid pranks, but I cockily believed that my own precautions would suffice. I was wrong.
St Jestrius was a monk who lived and died in North Africa in the 4th century. As a young man he was wild; he liked to dress as a strumpet, barge into the homes of his friends and his father’s friends and, in front of their wives, accuse the men of engaging in exotic sexual behavior with storks and Blue Hooting cranes. He made a very convincing strumpet, and no matter how much the accused men explained to their wives, Jestrius was responsible for putting many marriages onto the rocks. Then one night a real strumpet appeared to him in a dream and castigated him for bringing ignominy to strumpets everywhere with his antics. Upon awakening, Jestrius was so penitent that he distributed all his wigs, tight togas, and boas to the poor, and set off for the desert that very morning.
Deep in the desert he found a cave and lived there, praying for forgiveness and contemplating his bad taste. Years passed. A Blue Hooting crane from a nearby oasis began to fly over Jestrius’ cave each morning, and the very scrawny and generous Jestrius began to leave out a chunk of bread and a couple of dates for the bird. The crane swept down, gobbled up the tidbits and went on his way. This became their ritual, with both Jestrius and the crane enjoying their quiet contact in the middle of the desert. Until one morning when Jestrius woke up feeling like his old self and had a clever idea. He found some rocks in his cave, and – using vegetable dyes for paint and his own hair for the brushes - painted them to look like bread and dates, and left them out on the ledge where the crane flew in each day.
It was another warm sunny day in the desert, and the Blue Hooting crane swept in at his usual time and took the “bread” and “dates” in his beak and swallowed. In his last living moments, as the rocks descended and crushed his windpipe, the crane looked at Jestrius, his false friend, with sad but forgiving eyes. Then he keeled over, dead.
Jestrius was appalled with the realization of what a cruel joke he had played. He called on God to bring back his friend the crane; he tried to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the crane but mouth-to-mouth is almost impossible when one of the parties has a long and sharp beak.
So the crane stayed dead, but this time the repentance stuck with Jestrius. He ended his days praying and eating only stone soup, leaving any other food he had for the wild animals and birds.
Jestrius’ bones were discovered years later by a troupe of traveling strumpets, and brought back to the city where a church was build to house the relics of the holy man. Now the faithful from the world over can visit the old bones of Jestrius and hope to be protected against jokers, pranksters and all sorts of foolishness.