Friday, July 28, 2017

Tillykke med fødselsdagen* and the Animal Kingdom

So yesterday was Mom’s birthday, which she would not realize if we neglected to tell her, but I am not going to ignore the birthday of the woman who, on the occasion of my 50th birthday, sent me 50 birthday cards, with Happy Birthday written in a different language on each and every one. This is not an exaggeration. Back in those distant benighted days before the Google Translate App, my mother sought out, researched, asked friends and acquaintances and somehow managed to learn how to say Happy Birthday in 50 languages. Between the two of them, my parents could manage nine languages…some of them fluently, others raggedly, but still. (English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Flemish) That meant she had to get forty more languages.
But before we would celebrate Mom’s birthday in the evening, I had the ladies of the Literature Club coming for our annual midsummer picnic. All was, or seemed to be, under control. CSB had mowed the lawn and helped me gather our random assortment of lawn chairs in a loose circle, in the shade of an unnaturally large birch tree. I had set out iced tea and lemonade and pink wine. Just in case someone wanted to soak her feet, I left the red and yellow plastic kiddie pool filled with water, and hoped no one would notice the flotilla of bugs. Then I headed down to the end of the field to pick sunflowers and…there, lying in the grass like a discarded rumpled tee shirt, was a dead raccoon. Quite newly dead. Eyes still open, mouth still agape.
This was a bad thing for two specific reasons. No three. First, the chickens were out of their pen and running all over the yard, and I didn’t want them finding this dead - and possibly rabid? - raccoon. Second, fifteen ladies were showing up in an hour or so, and in case one of them wanted to wander a bit, I really did not want them to come upon a raccoon carcass. Third, Mom and her caregiver, Ava, generally took a daily walk around the garden going past exactly this spot, and while a dead raccoon would give just about anyone pause, a dead raccoon could very likely cause Ava to have genuine hysterics. Ava has many fine qualities, but any degree of comfort with animals, rodents, or insects, dead and alive, is not among them.
But I wasn’t keen to touch this dead raccoon.
So I went to the shed and found an empty metal garbage bucket, and placed it directly atop poor dead Ranger Rick. CSB would do the rest.

Then the literary ladies came, and everything was fine, and no one was troubled by the upside down garbage bin concealing the dead and rotting raccoon, and we discussed books such as A Summer without Men and Exit West and The Idiot (by Batumen, not Dostoyevsky, though of course Dostoyevsky is the inspiration), and we sang the praises of the The Traveler Restaurant, a wonderful eatery and bookshop off 1-84 on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, filled with discarded books, where one can depart with THREE FREE (!!!) books, and we announced the blooming corpse flower at the Des Moines Botanical Garden, serendipitously concurrent with the annual Rag Ride (bike ride across Iowa),and we also discussed whether it was possible to acquire dual citizenship, as in from the country of one’s ancestors, and according to one member, one could - with proper proofs and documents - indeed acquire the nationality of one’s grandparent, though no farther back than that. For those of us with family relatively new upon these shores - that is to say, immigrants -- all sorts of possibilities were raised. Would I rather be Belgian or French or German? Would I get to vote in both countries’ elections?
Meanwhile the chickens clucked, and wandered around, and happily pecked the lawn looking for worms and grubs and ticks. Until a large (larger even than the dead raccoon under the metal garbage bin, but I didn’t mention that) woodchuck appeared. He just waddled out onto the lawn while chickens clucked at him. Who was more distraught? Several literary ladies saw the woodchuck, and that provoked a discussion of whether or not woodchucks are crepuscular animals. While we were not sure about the woodchuck’s habits, we all agreed that crepuscular was a fine word. Foxes are definitely crepuscular, except for the fox who recently attacked and ran off with one of our chickens (an Araucana) neatly clutched between his, or her, jaws. The woodchuck, being an herbivore, I think, never attacked the chickens, and finally returned to the ferns. The chickens continued their clucking.

Later the deer arrived, munching in their usual spot under the apple trees. Our resident ungulates have already consumed every apple they can reach, and they have likewise eaten all the young leaves and fresh bark on any new trees. The upper apples, high on the tree, are however quite available for the squirrels. Who have already consumed all, as in 100%, of our peaches.
With all the wildlife, dead and alive, I had occasion to miss Bruno and Daisy, in their salad days, back when the four-legged animals running round the yard were members of the family, beloved creatures.

Later Mom came for dinner so we could celebrate her birthday. I made lamb chops and sweet potato fries and salad with endives and cucumbers, all favorite foods, once.
She is losing nouns at about the same rate we are losing peaches. Yet I surprise myself by understanding what she means when she says: “The thing… it was a color…over there, before.” (Regarding a red dress she bought in Brussels.)
One of her sons called to wish her Happy Birthday. She looked at me with confusion. “Who is this? What do I do?” I told her it was her son Michael, her favorite (I always tell her the one on the phone is her favorite), and that the scarf I’d just given her to open was from him, so she should say thank you. This caused both Mom and Michael (who had not given her the scarf) to be equally confused.
Then I brought out the cake and explained about blowing out the candle. Eighty seven years and one inexplicable candle.

* Danish.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Last Day with IGGY

It was Iggy’s last day with us, and as he had every day he has been here, he crawled into bed with me sometime between 3 am and 7 am. Still, I roll ever and express surprise at this vision of tangled curls on the pillow.
Then begins the morning’s monologue.
“Nana, it’s raining.
So we won’t go outside, because we would get so wet. Unless we go to the pool, and then we get wet on purpose, but let’s not go to the pool this morning. Because it is raining.
But the plants like it. All your plants like the rain. Even the weeds. They are burglars of the plant world. They’re not regular burglars. They just steal the sun and water. And that is not good.
And also weeds can be found worldwide. Worldwide.”

The concept of a plant, or an animal, or an insect or even an idea, existing worldwide, is one that Iggy finds very compelling.

When Iggy came to us last week, I had never heard of Ninjago. And even when I did learn of Ninjago I could not pronounce it properly. I kept saying Nin-JAY-go, to rhyme with Lego, which made sense because the Ninjagos are in fact Lego creatures. That drove Iggy crazy, because they are properly called Nin-JAH-gos.

Now I can pronounce Ninjago and I have learned all about them. According to Iggy:
“Nana, this is green Ninja. His name is Lloyd. He has all the elemental powers: Ice, fire, electricity and earth. Those are Ninjago ones of them: they’re not real ones.
Kai the red Ninja has fire.
And Zane the white Ninja has ice. Z is the starting letter
Coal is the black Ninja and he is earth.
And Blue Ninja, that’s Jay, and he is lightning.
Where does it say electricity? It shouldn’t say electricity - It should say: Lightning.
Do you know what this weapon is called?
The hurricane of ice.
The dagger of earth.
The sword of fire.
And this, this is the nunchuk of lightning
Lloyd can make the golden dragon with his powers, when he is the golden ninja. He can even beat Sensei Wu and he is super good.
He can freeze stuff in the ice
He could make my foot not be able to move.
And Lloyd. He started out as a bad boy. After a long time he turned out to be the green Ninja. Isn’t that crazy?”

Since it continued to be a rainy day, we played UNO. But first, because I was shocked that this wise-guy didn't already know them, I thought I would teach Iggy the twelve months of the year: January, Fever, Marvelous, Apricot, Mayonnaise, Jungle, Jellybean.... Iggy didn't think much of my humor: "Nana, that is an enormous non-funny joke."
So we played lots and lots of UNO. We played an UNO marathon. Iggy was the first to win six games. Then we started another marathon.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Another day with IGGY

So this morning after breakfast and before camp Iggy and I decided it was high time to clean the wooden Chinese bird cage that has been hanging from the kitchen ceiling for the past 20-odd years. Collecting dust and dead bugs, especially dead stink bugs. There has never been an actual bird inside the bird cage, but there is a petrified baby alligator head, an oropendola nest, some fake brown and white eggs and a couple fake birds with wire talons, clinging to the outside of the bird cage.
I am not sure whether the reptilian head in question is mummified or petrified or just freeze-dried, but I do know that it was once alive. Because I told Iggy so.
“Nana, is this real?”
“Definitely,” I said. “It’s dead now. But it was once alive, entirely.”
“But not the eyeballs,” Iggy said. “They’re marbles. Of course. If they were real crocodile eyeballs, or any type of eyeballs, they would stink! I’m warning ya!”
“I stand warned,” said. “But we still don’t know if this was a crocodile or an alligator. Or something else.”
“If we see his teeth when he closes his mouth, then it’s an alligator,” Iggy said. “With crocodiles, the teeth stick out.”
“I don’t see your teeth when your mouth is shut, so you must be an alligator,” I said.
“But Nana, I’m not a reptile!”

Then I told Iggy that, according to a show about entomophagy that I heard on NPR, the absolute worst tasting insect of all the possible insects to eat, is a live stink bug.
He considered this. “But I know a bug that tastes like pizza.”
“It has a white body, - the whole body is white - and then a red face. With one big eye. I think it is a grub. Yes! That’s it, a straight-up grub. And it tastes like pizza.”

It just so happens that today is Pizza Friday at Hastings Day Camp.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Let’s start with the corrections.
My brother Michael wrote: BTW, venomous and poisonous are not synonyms.  Anything with poison is poisonous; only animals with venom are venomous.  So, while all venomous animals are poisonous, but not all poisonous things are venomous.  Just thought Iggy would like to know. (Why Michael could not have put this in the comments section of SQD is not addressed here. Reluctance and refusal are not synonyms.)

The next correction is not quite as clear. We checked the paper Tuesday morning for the official Jeopardy! answer to “one lethal type of this bone-free creature is the most venomous marine animal”….and it was “Jellyfish. Not Blue-ringed octopus, and not any particular type of jellyfish, just Jellyfish. There are thousands of different types of jellyfish, inhabiting every ocean. They can be found on the surface, on beaches, and way out in the deep sea. Given our household’s preference for specificity, “Jellyfish” was an entirely unsatisfactory answer. But Iggy could improve on it. “It’s probably a Box Jellyfish”, he explained. "Oh yes indeed! [he was becoming gleefully agitated] If you touch the bottom of the box jellyfish, or the top of the box jellyfish, or the tentacles of the box jellyfish, you get stinged and then [pregnant pause, lowering of voice] you are dead."

Then we went outside to splash in the plastic pool and cool off. Iggy leapt in and out of the pool and attached the hose to the waterfall gizmo so water could spray all over. I moved away from the pool. Iggy came and sat next to me, in one of our very old and mismatched but still usable lawn chairs. Once upon a time my mother had a set of matching black and orange Brown-Jordan lawn chairs, and once upon a time Chucker’s mother had a set of matching white poolside chaises, and once we had two matching green chairs; now we have a selection and each one is wobbly and distended in its own particular way. There on the black webbing of one of the chairs, Iggy saw something wonderful.
“Nana! It’s a robber fly!”
“A rubber fly? I don’t see anything.”
“A robber fly. Right there. Naturally, he has excellent camouflage. This is our lucky day!”
“Because we saw a robber fly?”
“Yes! They live worldwide. And they can be very sneaky.”
“I had no idea,” I said.
“They predators. That’s why it is so good we saw this one. We can make sure he doesn’t get any of your honeybees.”

So now you know. Our lucky day. Samuel Beckett would agree.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Our grandson Iggy is staying with us for a week - eight days to be exact, and Iggy is always exact - while his parents are in Iceland. Yes, Iceland, where all the hipster sheep plunge into geothermal pools and knit.
Iggy comes with a long list of instructions that cover important topics ranging from “poop sit” modalities, to bedtimes, to bubble blowing skills, to fruit and vegetable preferences.

This morning, Iggy was eating waffles dipped in Lithuanian honey (we are out of Let it Bee Hastings honey), which he said was good, but not as good as our own bees' honey.
We were sitting on the porch. I was nibbling on blueberries, and casting an eye on the crossword puzzle, then noticed this Jeopardy Clue of the Day.

“Iggy, what is the most venomous marine animal? Bone-free, so obviously not a shark.”
With a piece of waffle impaled upon his fork, he answered immediately, “The Blue-ringed octopus. Yes, definitely it’s the blue ringed octopus.”
“I have never heard of the blue-ringed octopus,” I said.
“If you touch one of the blue rings… zingo…you are seriously dead. Maybe if you touch the octopus not on the blue ring you might survive, but mostly, you die.”
“I think I will just steer clear of blue-ringed octopuses entirely,” I said. “But are you sure? More venomous than a sea snake.”
“Sea snakes have bones. Eels don’t have bones, but snakes do.”
“Of course.” I remember once buying several dozen snake vertebrae to give as party favors for a long-ago birthday party for Iggy’s mother.

One thing about Iggy - and presumably all small persons - is specificity. He is very specific, and he demands specificity from the rest of us, of me, his ofttimes vague grandmother. This morning when I was dropping him off at day camp, I said, “Grab your knapsack.” And was indignantly corrected. “Nana, you mean my backpack. If you say knapsack I won’t know what you are talking about. Also book-bag. If you say book-bag I will look for a bag full of books.”
“Okay,” I said. “Henceforth I will always say backpack. I will TRY to say backpack. But I might forget. Did you know, Iggy, that there are often many words for the same thing?”
“Like venomous and poisonous?”
“Exactly. Though that wasn’t what I was thinking of. How about happy? Can we think of ten words for happy?”
“Glad. Cheerful.”
“Joyful. In a good mood.”
“We need six more,” Iggy announced. Then we went down the grassy hill and met with the head of the Hillside Day Camp.
Upon introducing Iggy to the young woman with the clipboard and a satchel full of permission slips, he announced “I am six.” Next, because we noticed the bees amusing themselves in the clover on the grass at Hillside, he added, “I am not afraid of bees. Do you know why that is? Because my grandparents are bee farmers. Also egg farmers.”
Then I delivered Iggy to his group of campers and counselors.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Ones Not Chosen

While we are on the subject of how to stay sane while rehabbing and regaining the full flexion, extension and strength in one’s right knee, I should point out that I have had an unequalled opportunity to sink and swim in Belgian writing.

The theme to be explored, elucidated, exhausted and ultimately wrung dry in our Literature Club this year is “Literature of Our Ancestors”. As with more or less every theme we devise, this one can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be the literature written by a particular ancestor. It can be the literature written by fellow countrymen of your ancestors. It may be whatever literature your ancestors chose to read. But which ancestors? Your parents may have been reading Ladies’ Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, John Updike and John Cheever; while your great-great-great grandparents back in the swamps of Wallonia were reading Balzac by gaslight; while your other great-great-great grandparents on the Norman coast were reading ships’ manifests and not much else. You just hope they were reading at all.

I could complicate the matter endlessly, but this year I will not. Or not entirely. Because no one else has Belgian ancestors (how odd that I feel confident this is the case) I have decided to present a program on Belgian writers, or a Belgian writer.

The first Belgian writer I considered was Maurice Maeterlinck. But several years ago, when our theme was Science and Literature, I presented a program that included Maeterlinck’s classic Life of the Bee. So forget Maurice, even if he and his lover, Georgette LeBlanc, did live for several years in a ruined abbey (Abbey of St Wandrille in Normandy) so vast that they went from room to room on roller skates.
Then I happened to hear of Emile Verhauren (1855-1916). I had never in my life heard of Emile Verhauren, but according to Stefan Zweig, who knew a lot, Verhauren was supremely important, the Francophone equivalent of Walt Whitman, and a founder of the school of Symbolist poetry. Arthur Symons wrote that Verhauren’s poetry “is made directly out of the complaining voices of the nerves.” He also wrote of Verhauren, that “there is something lacerating, and the same time bewildering, which conveys to one the sense of all that is most solitary, picturesque, and poignant in the transformation of an intensely active and keen-sighted reason into a thing of conflicting visionary moods.” Could this be fated? Many years ago, when our theme was Latin American Literature, my subject was Ruben Dario (1867-1916), who created the Spanish Modernismo movement, akin to Symbolism.
But I happened to have dinner soon thereafter with Annabelle, Marc and Maude, all genuine Belgians. Neither Annabelle or Marc (no slouches) had ever heard of Verhauren; Maude said she had read him in school and that he was very boring.
The next writer I considered presenting was Georges Simenon. The creator of Inspector Maigret, Simenon wrote at least 500 books and at some time in the 1960’s he was the most translated writer in the world. Yet for all that, nowadays he doesn’t even consistently make the list of Top Ten Most Famous Belgians.
Simenon wrote all the time, and he wrote a lot. He also had a lot of sex. In 1977, Simenon told Fellini that, according to his calculations, since the age of 13 and a half [I like the distinction of the half] he had sex with 10,000 women. If my math is correct, that is 61 years, or 22,265 days. So, he could have had sex with a different woman every other day, religiously, for 61 years. All while being married, serially, to two women and having two or three long-term and devoted extra-marital relationships.
Another interesting fact about Simenon is that his very first novel, Au Pont des Arches (never translated into English) was partially set in an apothecary specializing in laxatives for pigeons.
If you, like me, cannot fathom why a pigeon would need a laxative, or how a pigeon would express the need for a laxative, you will perhaps understand why I will not be presenting a program on Georges Simenon to Literature Club this year.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Circumambulating with Buddenbrooks

While listening to Buddenbrooks, I walked ten times around the driveway, mostly not using the cane but, following instructions from Geraldine the physical therapist I was carrying the cane lest I become tempted to pull a weed or thirty and then be unable to get myself upright again. According to the app on my phone, the same phone on which I listened to Buddenbrooks, I walked 1633 steps or .73 mile.

There is parked in our driveway an 18-year-old Audi station-wagon, shorn of license plates, that has not been driven for at least 18 months. Our plan is to call some worthy charity and give them the car if they will come to our driveway and take it away. The possible worthy charities are so vast and diverse that choosing among them inevitably gives rise to marital discord and/or moral dilemmas: should this well-loved and much-driven agglomeration of metal parts benefit the National Eating Disorders Association or Surf Aid International, Mechanics who Care or Glaucoma Research, Autism Speaks, Alzheimer’s Association, Colitis Foundation, Home for Little Wanderers, or Sierra Forever Families? You can appreciate the difficulty: good arguments can be made.

Before we decide what worthy cause shall reap the financial benefits of the old Audi, it will have to be emptied out, because for now it functions as a tertiary honey-super and broken tools storage container. And how useful it has been.

Being permanently parked and unregistered, no one has thought it worthwhile to actually wash the old Audi, so its once shiny red paint is now overlaid with a bespoke combination of pollen, pine sap and pollution. I discovered that this made an excellent medium for keeping track of my driveway orbits. Each time I completed a circle, I made a mark on the Audi’s hood with the rubber tip at the base of my cane. (I took a photo to show you, but it looks like an unsightly smudge. Nothing more.) I was irrationally pleased with myself for devising this method of keeping track. Until today I can honestly say that after walking several times around the driveway - excellent exercise for my post-surgical revised right knee - not once have I been absolutely sure of the number of revolutions. Did I manage 10 or 11? Or only 9? I was distracted by pulling those weeds in the asphalt, and then even more distracted by noticing the proliferation of poison ivy vines on the scrawny hemlock trees between our driveway and our neighbors, the ones that look like dendritic meth addicts. (The trees, not the neighbors.)

Then, coming round the corner, I was again distracted by the slow-growing tricolor beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’. I love all beech trees, copper, purple and weeping. In my imagination the Buddenbrooks landscape is full of beech forests, and the houses are surrounded by beech hedges. That is not the case. Thus far there is only the avenue of beech trees on the road to Travemünde. Just that avenue by the seaside, and yet the beeches, their roots and their canopies, are intrinsic to Buddenbrooks.
About fifteen years ago my mother gave me this tree, back when she was still capable of choosing and buying an exotic chimerical tree. I like to remember that time when my mother knew a lot about trees. She researched trees. She had arborists on speed-dial. Having become enamored of this particular tree in the Smith College (the maternal alma mater) Botanical Garden, my mother planted a tricolor beech at the Orchard, and it slowly grew to an impressive size. Then something strange happened: it started to revert. This variety of beech has variegated leaves of purple and pink, copper and green; so it was very eerie when certain branches of Mom’s tricolor beech were only purple or only copper or only green. Just certain branches. Apparently this can happen to variegated plants: at some point they revert. Mine has not yet reverted. Perhaps because it is still so small, being such a slow-grower, the slowest growing tree I have.
Given such compelling distractions, it is a good thing I have the pollen-dusted Audi keeping track of my revolutions.
This is not the first or even the second or third time I have read Buddenbrooks, but it is the first time I have listened to it on Audible because it only recently became available on Audible. (27 hours for a mere 1 credit: a real deal.) I cannot adequately explain what I find so compelling about Buddenbrooks. (I feel that I do a better job of justifying my passion for Moby Dick, even though I have read Buddenbrooks more frequently and likely will again.) The story of the rise, and mostly the decline of four generations of grain merchants in a northern German city, in Buddenbrooks you will find allusions to almost any family dysfunction you can imagine. When I read the book I am constantly telling myself all the ways the story is not analogous to the story of my family. The Buddenbrooks family are from northern Germany, and my grandfather was Swabian, in southern German. (True, like old Johann B., my paternal grandfather married a Frenchwoman, my grandmother Germaine. In both cases, being patriarchies, the family ethos remained overwhelmingly Teutonic rather than Gallic, until the French strain creeped in. By which time it was already too late.)
The Buddenbrooks are grain merchants, and the Lehners dealt in cotton waste, in the twentieth, not the nineteenth century. The Buddenbrooks are most adamantly Protestants, most certainly not Catholics. The Buddenbrooks family line dwindles down to poor Hanno; while the Lehners breed prolifically and seem inclined to continue on that path. So, of course, the differences are vast.

Buddenbrooks remains a story of duty in mortal struggle with personal fulfillment, of family and business versus individualism and art. Clear winners are not possible. Keep walking.

By my calculations, which you are free to check and correct, if ten revolutions equal 30 minutes of reading time, (and assuming I only listen to Buddenbrooks while walking the driveway), then the book will be finished after 540 times around the driveway or 39.42 miles. I could be in Cold Spring Harbor or the Wawayanda State Park. Or I could be in my driveway.