Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sir Martin Frobisher and the sink plunger

The dogs were rather miffed at me for having neglected to include one single picture of them in my last post.  So to make amends, and without kow-towing too much to their egos, I agreed to reveal in this post the origin of Frobe's name.

Sir Martin Frobisher was an endearing sort of chap, for an Elizabethan.   He cut his sailing teeth, as it were, trashing French cargo ships in the English Channel—"privateering," he and Her Majesty called it:  we would know it as piracy.

Call it what you may, the prestige of piracy is notoriously short-lived.  Surely, Martin mused, there must be something more enduring to which to attach the Frobisher handle than a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. He listened carefully to the after-dinner chatter of his nautical chums, and heard a note of disgruntlement.  Specifically, they were not gruntled about having to go all the way round the southernmost tip of South America to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  Time-consuming, and the weather round Cape Horn was almost guaranteed to be desperate. There must be a better way.

Our hero had found his mission:  discover a sea route through the Arctic islands north of Canada, and thereby attain immortality.

He got as far as Baffin Island, landed in the bay that to this day bears his name, and seemed all set to discover the Northwest Passage . . . but hang on a jiffy, what's this . . . here in this chunk of black rock . . . it looks like . . .  GOLD!

Great was the excitement as he hastily sailed back to England, dismissed the concerns of the naysayers (who refused to believe it was gold, and outnumbered the yaysayers by three to one,) and talked some credulous investors into funding a second voyage from which he returned with 200 tons of ore.  Never one to be left out of a good thing, Queen Elizabeth insisted on a third, even more ambitious venture, which yielded no less than 1350 tons of . . . well, that was the problem.

What exactly was the stuff?

Alas, to Martin's acute embarrassment, it proved to be nothing more than iron pyrite, good only for surfacing roads. Some wag trenchantly observed, "Only a fool would think this to be gold!" and Martin had found his place in history—as the man who put the "fool" in fool's gold.  Elizabeth knighted him, possibly to save face. He might still be a fool, but now he was SIR Martin Frobisher, Fool to Her Most Sovereign . . . etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The connection with a sink plunger may not be crystal clear; allow me to make it so.

I am sitting in the tub with my brother; our combined ages are barely into double digits.  Egged on by my brother, I am making rude noises with the sink plunger on the side of the tub, just above the waterline.  The wall above the tub has just been replastered, and painted a shiny turquoise green. The surface is invitingly smooth and glossy.

 What noise will the sink plunger make on the wall? Squish it on . . . pull . . .  that's funny, nothing's . . . OH! A perfectly round chunk of wall plops into the water.  Refusing to believe that this flimsy piece of rubber can wreak such havoc, I do it again.  Same result. And again . . .

To this day, I can recall my outraged disbelief as I watched chunk after chunk of our bathroom  wall plop into the tub.  I can also recall my mother's outraged disbelief as she asked that most difficult of questions: Why did you keep on doing it?

I like to think that Sir Martin was asked the same question. Perhaps he stuttered something like
 If gold is so highly valued, surely this that glisters so like it must be worth something? Maybe he importuned his detractors, I see it now, the true gold was on the other side of the bay. One more voyage and I'll have the real thing, by the ton. May I interest you in this 'golden' investment opportunity?

Alas, he had no success: he faded into oblivion, where he died in 1594His name endures, however, in a desolate, barely inhabitable, Arctic bay.  And now in Frobe, an oversize Great Dane, who assures me he has no seafaring ambitions whatsoever.

Friday, September 6, 2013

the cooling power of words

In retrospect, I could hardly have chosen a worse day for my historic first blog post.  September 1, 2013, was not only the day our youngest son Evan, my technological lifesaver, returned to college; it was also the day that the weather here in Ojai took off its gloves, and revealed that it was wearing knuckle dusters.  In other words, it turned h-o-t.

Hotter than 80º. Hotter than 90º.  Hotter, even, than 100º.

To put this in perspective, shortly before I left England back in the late 70's, the south western corner where I lived was visited by a heatwave.  A serious heatwave. Brutal, even. The headline in the Bristol Evening Post screamed, SEVENTY DEGREES AGAIN TOMORROW: NO END IN SIGHT!
Above 70º, my brain simply checked out.

Two weeks later I arrived (late) to register at UCLA. It was a nightmare. When I went to Oxford I just showed up, found my room, and presented myself at the Music Department the next morning.   In the sweltering corridors of UCLA, I stood obediently on the blue, red or yellow line as directed, and invariably found, when I finally reached the head of the queue, that I had mis-heard, and should have stood on the green one.  I had first met these lines in the GRE exam I had taken in London earlier that summer, and I had assumed they were fictitious. I was flabbergasted to find they were real. I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd rounded a corner and bumped into the Three Little Pigs.

 The campus was unusually hot: 104º, to be precise.  My brain lacked any receptor site for 104º; so when a fellow student remarked conversationally, "it doesn't get hot in England, does it?" I summoned the most impressive statistic I knew. "Oh yes it does," I assured him.  "Sometimes it gets as hot as seventy degrees!"

I never did live that one down.

It was the following April that I took a train to Washington State and promptly lost my heart.  After the brilliant pinks and reds of the bougainvilleas, the chemically intense green of weed-free lawns, and the unrelenting blue of the Los Angeles skies, the subtle colors and dappled light enraptured me.  How many shades of brown there were! How tenderly the deciduous trees were brushed with the palest of spring greens! The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said. Philip Larkin's poem rolled around my brain: The recent buds relax and spread / Their greenness is a kind of grief.

I said it out loud: "If there's one place in America I want to live, this is it."

My wish came true, and five years later we moved to Everett, some 25 miles north of Seattle. There, my brain learned to function in temperatures as high as 80º, and I set about recreating some of my favorite botanical corners of Oxford. I loved it all: the rain, the clouds, the way the rays of the setting sun would peek out from beneath the cloud layer and illumine the Magdalen College-inspired red and gold dahlias with breathtaking intensity.

Alas for me, we could not stay: twenty-two years later found us back in S.California, dealing with days, even weeks, of 90º plus. Even, at times, 104º. In Seattle, people become depressed when they don't see the sun for weeks on end; it's called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.  My SAD, on the other hand, is Sunshine Affective Disorder, and I have had to find my own personal way of coping with Too Much Sun.

Here's how I do it: I find a fan, sit close beside it, and rejoice in the amazing fact of physics that moving air, simply by virtue of its moving, feels cooler than still air. I make myself very, very small (reduced surface area seems to help,) and keep absolutely still. I all but stop breathing. It's a lot like hibernation, except that it happens in the aestas (Latin for summer) instead of the hibernis (Lat: winter.) Hence the name: aestivation.

Aestivation. What a helpful word. I rather doubt, however, that the concept will catch on.  California red-legged frogs do it, but they're a threatened species. Snails do it—they ascend a grass stalk, construct a membrane of dried mucus across the opening of their shell, and pretend that all that heat out there just isn't happening. But among mammals, not so much—I suppose there are limits to what dried mucus can accomplish.

My husband's grandfather in North Dakota used to wear long underwear year-round. He swore it kept the heat in during the winter months, and kept it out through the summer. My mother's father did the same thing on the east coast of Scotland.

Perhaps there's a word for that too: I wonder what 'long underwear' is in Latin . . .

Sunday, September 1, 2013

my first blog

Let's begin with the obvious. After years of listening to me insist that "it's not an empty nest, it's a successful launching pad," my children have proved that it really doesn't matter what I call it, the result is the same: an empty house. The birds have flown, Entropy Academy is no more.

Actually that's not strictly true: Andrew, our second-born of six, is still at home.  He lives in the guest house with a pool table, a really basic sound system, and kind people who come every weekday to do his laundry, make sure his personal hygiene is up to snuff, and take him on bus rides to Ventura.  Usually, he eats with us. Andrew is 28 years old, and has Down's syndrome.

The irrepressible Percy
The fact that I home schooled all six of them makes the silence all the more poignant. The house is no longer subject to quite the ravages of entropy that gave our school its name . . . oh, but how could I forget those power houses of chaos, our two rescue Great Danes!  Frobe (two syllables please,) named after the illustrious Sir Martin Frobisher (about whom more anon,) and Persephone of Greek myth, shortened to Percy.  Imagine two enormous toddlers, combined weight 200+ lbs, laying waste to your living room with total abandon, and you'll get the general idea.
Frobe pushes the limits of looking noble

I came to America when I graduated from Oxford, on a teaching fellowship in the music department of UCLA, with the firm intention of spending absolutely no more than one year maximum away from home.  That was in 1978.  In the immortal words of Rabbie Burns, "the best laid plans o' mice an' men gang aft agley" - that's Lowland Scots for "don't work out terribly well."  I did get my Master's, in the history of Mediaeval music.  This means that I once knew a tremendous amount about the clausulae of the 13th century Notre-Dame School.  It also made the choice between career and family most excessively easy: there were no more jobs for mediaeval music historians in the early 80's than there are today.  So I poured all my creative energy into homeschooling and converting to Catholicism, and for over twenty years I was fulfilled.  Driven more than halfway to insanity, to be sure, but fundamentally, deeply happy. 

Then came the thing that would forever set me apart from most "successful launching pad-ers" (no, I'm not expecting it to catch on either): I developed a neurological problem of uncertain origin, "atypical Parkinson's" being about as close to a diagnosis as I can get.  This is why all my typing is one-handed, why the piano stands silent (I graduated from the Royal College of Music in piano, and  was looking forward to long hours practicing when the children grew up.) Virtually housebound, I have to find ways to keep the old grey matter from atrophying.  

I have lengthy conversations with the dogs, have been known to read aloud to the hummingbirds, but there are still hours of every day to fill. It is my newest, and greatest, challenge - physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual - and I invite you to join me: to keep me company, share a good story, and crack a joke or two along the way.