Saturday, August 27, 2016

How to Catch A Seagull

At no point in my adult life have I devoted significant mental energy to contemplating how to catch a seagull. Never, that is, until I found myself discussing this very question with some newfound friends at the beach one Sunday afternoon in early August. It turned out that not only had they captured a seagull in the past, but they were willing to try it again. There was even a teenage boy (let’s call him Hamish), eager to make the attempt. My sole job was to observe from a respectful distance and take scrupulous mental notes.

Here's how it's done: first, Hamish selected a part of the beach with few humans, especially of the junior variety who like to run around screaming. Ensuring that there were sufficient seagulls in sight, both airborne and waddling along the sand, he scooped out a shallow trench more or less the same length as himself, and lay down in it. Taking a large towel, he covered himself from feet to chin. Both arms lay cunningly concealed beneath the towel. One arm sneaked out, bearing a succulent morsel of leftover foodstuff designed to titillate a seagull's taste buds into paroxysms of delight (in this case, the remains of a chicken wing with just a hint of Alfredo sauce), and placed it on the towel, right over Hamish’s stomach.

Now came the hard part: we waited. And waited. And while we waited, (it being rather a hot afternoon,) my lunchtime beer kicked in and I began to fantasize. Suppose we get lucky, I thought; suppose a gull spies the morsel with its beady eye, and swoops down to claim it as its own. The moment for action has arrived! Like a coiled viper, Hamish unfurls his betoweled arms and seizes the hapless bird in his steely embrace. He has our seagull!

Okay, so now what? What exactly does one do with this very unhappy captive bird, whose mighty beak is thrashing around, inches away from Hamish’s eyeballs—eat it? Sorry, seagull pie is out of the question: when asked by a journalist why seagull meat never put in an appearance on the daily menu, a Devon fisherman replied in his broad West Country drawl, “If ‘ee puts a seagull int’ oven wi’ a brick, th’ brick ‘ud be done first, and it’d taaste better.”

Perhaps it could be tamed and kept as a pet! I looked up “domesticate” in the massive dictionary (which, thanks to the marvels of the common cell phone, I just happened to have with me) and found that the process of domestication generally involves such a close association with human beings that the animal loses its fondness for living in the wild. One look into that flashing eye, one ear-piercing, raucous shriek, one moment’s contemplation of their disgusting personal habits that make them about as desirable a pet as an airborne dung beetle, and I was convinced—there would be no seagull perched in my kitchen, screeching incessantly, taking enormous pecks out of any human foolish enough to venture within striking range, making vast, splashy messes of fishy-stinky seagull poop all over the floor . . .

 My reverie was cut short by Joe’s return. Dusting sand off himself, he admitted defeat: perhaps there had been one too many children running on the beach; perhaps it was the wrong brand of Alfredo sauce; perhaps the birds simply weren’t in the mood . . . Whatever the reason, the seagull-capturing quest had proved a failure.

And I couldn’t honestly say I was sorry.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

HEAT - and What To Do About It

"Who goes out in the midday sun?
"Mad dogs and Englishmen"
This little couplet runs through my brain every year when the temperature in SoCal inches towards 100F and I recall the land of my birth. There, in the halcyon days before the climate went berserk and triple digits invading Buckingham Palace became almost commonplace, something quite extraordinary happened: pretty much any time the sun put in an appearance, no matter how brief, every piece of turf, no matter how minuscule, was instantly covered with sweating bodies roasting painful shades of reddish pink, slowly turning as if on an invisible communal spit. "Carpe solem" might be their motto: seize the sun.
Let us now leave my ex-countrymen, and turn instead to the suburban back yards of the US where the cry rings out, "I'm too hot, Mom, it's too ho-o-t, Mom, MOM, I said, IT'S TOO HOT!" (As if the current heatwave had been entirely mom's idea . . .) Here are a few of my favorite things to do with hot, crotchety children:
* set the little ones loose to "paint" the driveway, the flowers, and each other with paint brushes and water.
* Put two buckets of water on the grass (or any thirsty ground) with measuring cups, empty yogurt pots, plastic toys, and ping pong balls (hold them underwater and let go - whose will shoot highest into the air?)
* Buy some cheap synthetic bath sponges, hold them underwater, then SPLOSH! Wettest game of catch EVER!
* Give each child a 2-liter soda bottle full of water, and see who can empty theirs fastest. Is it quicker to twirl and shake the bottle or simply hold it still?
* Teach them a little anatomy. Where does blood flow closest to the skin's surface? Fill a bucket with cold water and give each child a wash cloth to dip in it. Have them slosh the wet cloths on various body parts - knees, shoulders, feet, the back of the neck, tummy . . . Eventually, help them notice that a wet cloth on the back of the neck is a dynamite cooler-offer. Why? Because blood flow to and from  the all-important head all passes through the neck, where veins lie close to the surface. Can they make an ice-filled sock cooler that will stay tied around their necks as the ice cubes melt in a delectable, icy trickle?
* Think ahead: put containers of your own devising filled with water in the freezer overnight (just for fun, add a little oil to one and see what happens.) Melt them in the sun, in shade, in water. Which is fastest? Where will they last longest?
For a grand finale, have everyone dip their heads into the bucket, then SHAKE like a mad dog.
But please, stay out of the midday sun!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits": A Unit Study,
Part the Second, June 2016. (Part 1, see March 1)
I have a friend who maintains that all of human history can be reduced to two questions: "What could possibly go wrong?" and "How was I to know"? In 1859, an Englishman by the name of Thomas Austin released twenty-four English rabbits into the wilds of Australia, saying as he watched the twenty-four cute, fluffy little tails hop merrily off into the sunset, "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” If pressed, I’m sure he would have added, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Quite a lot, Mr. Austin, quite a lot

Invite the children to attempt to outthink Mr. Austin. What dangers can they foresee that Mr. Austin could not? (Hint: hybrid vigor; rapid proliferation; few predators; ideal climate; farming vital to the economy.)
For starters, he failed to realize that bringing 24 of England’s finest rabbits to interbreed with the Australian locals would, thanks to hybrid vigor, produce a veritable SuperBunny   Not only were rabbits perfectly suited to the climate, whose mild winters meant they could breed year round, but farmers who ploughed up vast areas of scrub and woodland unwittingly left behind them ideal conditions for warrens. What followed was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Within ten years, rabbits were so numerous that over two million could be shot or trapped annually without making a dent in the population. In less than 30 years, so great was the damage inflicted on farmers’ crops, that the government of New South Wales offered a £25,000 reward for  "any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits." (Just for fun, estimate how much  £25,000  would be worth today.) On an outline map, have the children draw in the three “rabbit proof” fences. What kinds of animals were used to help in the building? In the maintenance of the wall?

Is anyone talking of building a wall today?

MATH The reproductive potential of a female rabbit is truly phenomenal.  A single female can, in seven years, become the matriarch of 184,597,433,860 offspring.  That’s almost two billion cute little fluffy tails, from one female and her female descendants.
For a different take on a similar mathematical phenomenon, read
One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi

For the younger children, read The Muddle-headed Wombat by Ruth Park, Australia’s delightful answer to Winnie the Pooh
Investigate marsupials; also
 Egg-laying mammals that are only found in Australia: duck-billed platypus, echidna.

DRAMA and HISTORY: They say, “it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good”; during the Depression meat was extremely hard to come by – except, that is, for rabbits. Who might have spoken our opening line? Make up, and act out, a short scene featuring a family during the Depression who have not a morsel of meat in the house, and precious little else to eat. An unexpected guest knocks at the door, bearing a gift from her mother: you guessed it – rabbits for dinner! And as they wait for the bunnies to cook, they join in singing, “Waltzing Matilda”. I’m quite sure they knew what all the words meant, and after singing along with this, so will you!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Earwigs By the Book, Part 2

Earwigs By the Book, Part 2

As you may recall from Part 1, I set myself the task of writing an entire blog about earwigs using only the six references in the Eyewitness book, Insects, and earwig minutiae already lodged in the darkest recesses of my brain. No Internet whatsoever! I had two questions: could it be done, and would the results differ significantly from an e-version? Which would be a better model to use to teach writing? There, that’s three questions. We’re off to a great start! I turn to the index, and thus to the first mention of my subject.

Earwigs can fly! I glean this from the Latin name, Dermaptera, "skin wings". This refers to their tissue-thin hind wings, which are kept folded beneath their very short, much tougher front wings.

Here I encounter my first problem: not everything that has wings can fly. Can an earwig? I know I’ve never seen one airborne . . . The only available book that offers to tell me is volume 5 (or possibly 6) of Encyclopaedia Britannica – a daunting prospect if ever I saw one. I yearn for Siri, for the instant access to information she offers. “Can earwigs fly?” I would ask, she would answer yes or no, and just like that, I would know. Oh, the temptation to tap into that infinite ocean of knowledge the Internet offers!

Reluctantly leaving the question of flight unanswered, I turn back to the book. I am relieved to find that earwigs do not in fact crawl down the ear of a sleeping human and take up residence in the brain. Furthermore, earwig mothers are awesome! They dig a small hole for their eggs then stay on guard until the nymphs are hatched. If the eggs are scattered (presumably by some malevolent researcher) she will gather them up and put them back in the hole; when the young nymphs emerge, mama earwig stays with them until they are able to fend for themselves. Get that, Hallmark? You have a new pin-up candidate for Mother's Day cards! Maybe such maternal solicitude accounts for the earwig's evolutionary success story: judging by the fossil record, they have changed little in 35 million years.

They may not care for a sleeper’s ear, but one thing they do like to crawl into is the nasturtium flower. You can tell just by looking at the little pointy bit at the back that it’s an earwig’s Ideal Home. A fact that I chose to ignore when, as a girl of about ten, I spent a significant chunk of my early summer laboriously interweaving sticks to make the framework of a den at the base of the cedar of Lebanon at the bottom of our garden. My plan was to cover the framework with nasturtiums, thus providing myself with a colorful, fragrant getaway in which to while away the lazy days of summer, and quite possibly the occasional night as well. Nourished by the adjacent compost heap, the flowers did their part and grew apace; with mounting excitement I looked forward to the day when I would enjoy my first picnic lunch in my den. What a very "Swallows and Amazons" thing to do, I thought, imagining my eager friends vying to take their turn in my flowery sanctum.

You’ve guessed what comes next: as I took my first bite of whatever succulent treat I’d chosen for my sandwich (quite possibly a Winnie-the-Pooh special, honey and condensed milk – I was ten, after all,) I was puzzled by the sound of raindrops falling in my perfectly dry den.  A glance at the ground revealed the awful truth: it was alive with earwigs, plopping gently from the flowers to form a shining, golden-brown carpet.

I high-tailed it out of my labor of love den in less time than it takes to tell, and I never looked back.

So there you have it: blogging without a (n/inter) net! I rather enjoyed it – I’d never have recalled the nasturtium den that wasn’t without ransacking my brain for a story. As for the tantalizing question of whether earwigs fly, I just checked Wikipedia and the answer, as is so often the case, is a resounding . . . yes and no. There are around 1200 species worldwide and some do, some don’t. It would be hard to write an interesting paper about that, I think

As to whether I can write an interesting column without the Internet . . . well,
You Be The Judge. And please, let me know the verdict!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Earwigs By The Book

 I had a startling encounter in the bathroom last night. In the dark. Something . . . someone? had its . . . his? hands around my neck in a malevolent tickle that gave fair  warning of its evil intent to throttle me to death. Meanwhile, his accomplice was crawling up my leg, pausing to savor enormous bites on his way . . . I took a deep breath,  stilled the panic mounting in my breast, and TURNED ON THE LIGHT!!!

Two earwigs, blinking stupidly (if earwigs do indeed blink, which I think they don’t,) momentarily transfixed by the light. I was seized on the spot by a burning desire to find out everything  I could about earwigs, what they were doing in my bathroom, and most important of all, how I could keep them from returning.

Now, this is where the story takes a surprising turn. The next sentence should read, what with it being the 21st century and all, "I opened up my computer and logged on to my trusty search engine." But this is where the story enters perhaps the realms of anti-science fiction, because the next sentence actually reads, "I was overwhelmed by an irresistible desire to open a book."

Not Google—a book.

The book that was calling me so eloquently, INSECT – Discover the world of insects in close-up – their behavior, anatomy, and important role in Earth’s ecology, sat among the other Eyewitness Books that I had been eyeing as likely candidates for my next run to the thrift store. As I removed it from the shelf it clung stickily to its neighbors as if to say, “Hey, I’ve been sitting here for years – why move me now?” It fell open to the double page, “How to avoid being eaten” (if you’re an insect, that is); there I found the incredible bombardier beetle, who has discovered that nothing deters a hungry predator like a good explosion right in his face. In the top right corner a hawksmoth caterpillar stretches out its unusually large head, tricking predators into thinking the caterpillar is in fact an extremely small but very poisonous snake.   Fascinating stuff!

On the very same page sits the weta, an enormous cricket from New Zealand that filled the role, normally filled by mammals, of ground-dwelling predator; this was necessary since the only mammals native to New Zealand are two species of bats. Once rats hitchhiked a ride with mankind onto the main islands, the weta “meta” sorry end, and today is extinct in all but the smallest islands.

My goodness, but I had forgotten how much fun it is to browse a good book! Look—here's a man with a bee bonnet (looks rather like my Russian ex-boyfriend… I wonder) . . . And here are two entomologists visiting Alexandria, Egypt in 1920 who spent the night collecting bed bugs rather than sleeping. Their tally by morning? Both men had 70 pins with 10 bugs on each. By my reckoning, that’s fourteen hundred bed bugs. Not a bad night’s work . . . Hmm, this browsing business is getting out of hand. It’s as bad as the computer for tempting you to stray off topic.

But off the topic of earwigs in a book about insects carries one into the wonderful realm of compound eyes and beetle antennae. Did you know that each hair around the mouth of a carpet beetle larva has its own “ball and socket” joint, and can probably pick up vibrations? Or that a locust curves its wings when landing to trap the maximum amount of air and ensure a gentle meeting with the ground, in a manner later copied by airplane designers?
Get off topic on Google (worse yet, on Youtube,) and find a world of salacious gossip about the British royal family, and fifteen uses for a used teabag. And those are the least objectionable, that merely waste time and jam your browser. They don’t threaten to lead one into an utterly depraved lifestyle—though mind you, I haven’t checked out numbers 12-15 of those things to do with a used teabag . . .

But earwigs – what about earwigs? Could I come up with enough content for a blog from the (count ‘em) six earwig references in Insect?  Tune in tomorrow and . . . Now, I know I don’t exactly have a stellar record with lead-ins to part two of a blog (the rabbits are still waiting in Australia, though I did much better with How to Make the Perfect Pot of Tea.)

Tomorrow, I will attempt the death-defying stunt: blogging without a net. Relying entirely on those six references to earwigs from Insects, and rosy earwig reminiscences from my youth, I will produce an entire blog! An extraordinary feat – if, indeed, it can be done.

Tune in next time to find out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Farewell to Andrew Episode 6: In Which We Really Do Say Goodbye

“It all happened so fast at the end,” says Gerry, as we stand in what will, if all goes according to plan, be Andrew’s room for the rest of his life. “We were going to paint the room your favorite color. What is your favorite color? There wasn’t even time to ask you!”

A quick glance around reveals the answer. “Yellow,” I speak for Andrew. “Pale yellow.” If it hadn’t been his favorite before, it certainly is now: this is his room at L’Arche, and for the first time in his life he will live at a different address—in a different state, even—than his parents.

I shift my powers of observation, such as they are, into grinding gear, and rev them up mercilessly. First impressions, I remind myself, are important. The room strikes me instantly as perfect.  A window in the eaves swings open to reveal a splendidly mossy roof, (how poetic, awfully glad we’re not responsible for the upkeep,) and a view of the lively street below—so many people walking so many dogs! You can tell it’s an old neighborhood by the cars lining the streets—automobiles are not destined to disappear into garages for another decade or three—as well as by the trees: great and small, conifers and broadleaves, straight and gnarled, an entirely disproportionate number of them in intoxicating bloom. This is May in Seattle, after all, and the air is heavy with the scent of blossoms.

But the pièce de résistance comes when I turn back into the room, and it is straight out of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers: two carpeted steps about three feet wide leading to a door roughly two feet above floor level, which opens onto . . . (drumroll . . .) THE CLOSET!!!!!  Lots of coat hangers and oodles of space, I notice, as well as a nifty spot to hang out in; there is also a bookcase, a chest of drawers. We’ll have to find him a desk . . . An unexpectedly personal touch from the previous occupant: a mobile of balsa wood aeroplanes whose gunmetal grey strikes a vivid contrast with the yellow walls.

And now we’re at that awkward moment where Gerry is inviting us for dinner (they take food very seriously at every L’Arche home we’ve been to) and Andrew is telling us loud and clear, in unmistakable body language, that it’s cool, he really doesn’t need us to hang around, in fact, Mom and Dad, Will You Please Go Now?

And so, just like that, it’s over.

We embarrass him with one more hug.





Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Farewell to Andrew Episode 5:

 In which the Ordinary becomes Almost Sacred, and then goes back to being ordinary again.

Ritual is a great buffer between us and what one might term “the stuff of life.” We go about our daily lives doing more or less the same old things with the same old people in the same old way.

And then, quite suddenly, whether you were anticipating it or not, everything changes, becomes fraught with meaning. Because this is, you see, The. Last. Time.
Yesterday there was a comfortable pad of time: two whole days. Now only one remains: tomorrow will be The Last Time one of us (who will it be?) walks over to the inaptly named Guest Cottage, (so called when my English mother was its sole occupant; it’s all SoCal terracotta tile, no honeysuckle and hollyhocks twining around this door, but she loved to call it her “cottage”, it made her think of home . . .)Whichever of us has volunteered will do last battle with the impossibly sticky sliding door, last battle with an impossibly somnolent 31 year old . . . All the same old things, but with one difference.

The last time. Andrew will pick up the newspaper for the last time. Such a simple act, dusted now with sanctity. Likewise taking out the recycling. Or loading the dishwasher, four plates jammed into each slot. There will be nobody to do this anymore. Our home will never be quite the same again.

We are fortunate; we knew this was coming, have had time to prepare our emotions, to alter our life stories gradually. Not for us the sudden devastation of an accident. Not this time. Or a heart attack.

It reminds me of a poignant poem by Thomas Hardy; the last verse goes something like this: (his love, who used to take this walk with him, is either ailing or dead, I forget which. Dead. She died, thus he is returning to an empty room. Hence the poignancy): 

“I went again today, just in the former way.
“Surveyed around familiar ground,
“On my own again — what difference then?

“Only that underlying sense
“Of the look of a room on returning thence.”

Yes, Andrew, you will be greatly missed. And we know that you will be greatly treasured at L’Arche; so I think, on the whole, that it’s a good thing.

Don’t you?

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Farewell to Andrew, episode 4

Getting Andrew out of bed: a photo adventure

Here is Andrew, sound asleep:
Mummy: “Wake up, Drewie, it’s a brand new day – it’s time to go PLAY!”

Andrew: “You’re joking, right? (groan) Please, somebody tell me she’s joking . . . “ 
Mummy: "Come on boys, up and at 'em, jolly hockey sticks and all that!"

Andrew: “How about if I sit like this? You see, I really am going to get up . . . just as soon as you walk out that door and give a man a little privacy.” (Thinks: “Just as soon as she’s out that door, I am going STRAIGHT back to bed!”)


Poor Andrew – his mum is wise to his tricks! “Andrew, let me see you with BOTH LEGS over the edge of the bed . . . BOTH FEET on the floor” (this seems to be the magical point of no return: if I get him this far, he has never yet retreated under the covers.)

Another day, successfully greeted!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Farewell to Andrew, episode 3: How a little dog training worked on me.

You know those parenting books that suggest you deal with bad behavior by waiting for, and rewarding, the good? If you're anything like me, you're thinking, "If I could but find ONE MOMENT of praiseworthy behavior, I wouldn't even be asking the question . . . "

Andrew has always been a rather noisy chap, and far from abating as he aged, the range of squeaks,  grunts, hums and honks has greatly increased—most especially when we're at Mass, trying to maintain at least a modicum of reverence. Andrew: "Honk—click—HMMMMM—grunt—splort"
Me, in hushed tones: "Andrew, you need to be quieter; people will think you're weird."
Andrew, looking stricken: OK, sorry-sorry-sorry." (Pause) "HMMMMMMM—snort—honk—splurt!" etc.

Now, I know enough about human nature to realize that when there's a problem in a relationship, trying to change the other person is invariably a lost cause. But try as I might, I simply could not ignore the cacophony emitted by my second son. What could be done? It was a stalemate.

Then I happened to read in No Bad Dogs, a dog training book by Barbara Woodhouse, about the extraordinary effectiveness of physical touch: a touch which "calms the wild dog, . . . produces ecstasy in dogs when you caress them."  She continues, "I lay my face alongside the dog's (which is) cupped in my hands, and I sense that my deep love and admiration for it passes right through to its mind . . ." In other words, touch brings about a telepathic communication. If it worked for Barbara Woodhouse and her dogs, could it work for my second son and me?

I had no doubts about Andrew's receptiveness; I was more concerned about me.

Could I overcome my natural restraint and reserve, and abandon myself to praising Andrew? Could I touch his shoulder as he hunched over his morning bowl of cornflakes, rice milk and banana, and transmit my deep love and admiration for him? Could I really put all that into a touch? How about my tone of voice; could I make it convey great joy to Andrew—tell him that I think him the most wonderful young man on earth?

 I had reckoned without one thing: the astonishing power of words. In the beginning, God used words to call all created things into being: now, He was using the power of the spoken word to heal a mother and her son. As I spoke  words of love and admiration to Andrew, blow me down if my feelings didn't follow suit! It was easy for me to make my touch tell him of my deep admiration, because thanks to the verbal affirmations, I really believed it! I thought of books that advised  couples who want to feel more love in their marriage to act as though they are in love, and I recognized that this was exactly what I was doing. And it was working!

Of course, it hasn't all been wine and roses: my husband, who had been getting quite sentimental about the forthcoming farewell, was brought back to reality with a vengeance this evening when he found that Drew had just unloaded all the dirty dishes from the dishwasher, and painstakingly put them away in cupboards and drawers. What do you do with a 31 year old who has no clue about clean and dirty?

Hold his face in your hands, lay your cheek against his, and tell him that you love him absolutely, unconditionally, and forever.

Use words if you have to.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Farewell to Andrew, episode 2

L’Arche communities in the United States provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers. At the heart of L’Arche are the adults who have intellectual disabilities—known as “core members”—and Andrew is to be one of them, starting next Thursday. We are so excited for him, and I looked for something amid the writings of the founder, the French Canadian Jean Vanier, that will give the unique flavor of L'Arche so you can rejoice with us. I found this story of eight year old Armando, told by Monsieur Vanier:

"Armando cannot walk or talk and is very small for his age. He came to us (L'Arche) from an orphanage where he had been abandoned. He no longer wanted to eat because he no longer wanted to live cast off from his mother. He was desperately thin and was dying from lack of food. After a while in our community where he found people who held him, loved him, and wanted him to live, he gradually began to eat again and to develop in a remarkable way. He still cannot walk or talk or eat by himself, his body is twisted and broken, and he has a severe mental disability, but when you pick him up, his eyes and his whole body quiver with joy and excitement and say: "I love you." He has a deep therapeutic influence on people.

(At a gathering of bishops in Rome in 1987)
"I asked a bishop if he wanted to hold Armando in his arms. He did. I watched as Armando settled into his arms and started to quiver and smile, his little eyes shining. A half hour later I came back to see if the bishop wanted me to take back Armando. "No, no," he replied. I could see that Armando in all his littleness, but with the power of love in his heart, was touching and changing the heart of that bishop. Bishops are busy men, they have power and they frequently suffer acts of aggression, so they have to create solid defense mechanisms. But someone like Armando can penetrate the barriers they—and all of us—create around our hearts; Armando can awaken us to love and call forth the well of living waters and of tenderness hidden inside of us."

I (Alison speaking) hope this touched your heart as much as it did mine. Andrew is going to a place where he will be deeply loved and appreciated, not just by his family but by a community of his peers, for the rest of his life.

I couldn't wish for a happier ending.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Farewell to Andrew, episode 1

Hear that rumbling sound? It's the wheels of the tumbril, carrying the prisoner to his execution at the guillotine. Dostoevsky describes this last journey in a memorable passage from the Brothers Karamazov, which I last read about a decade ago (this is a disclaimer - I may well be misremembering, but you'll get the general picture.) This scene haunts me when I'm preparing for a Major Life Event - a move, for instance.
We join the prisoner a couple of streets from his gory destination. The sun is shining, the road lined with trees - surely he has all the time in the world to enjoy this peaceful scene! But underlying it all is the rumble of the tumbril's wheels; they turn a corner -- one street closer to his doom . . .
And yet, the sky is a marvelous blue, clouds tinged still with dawn's rosy tint . . . surely nothing very terrible can mar a day like this! Besides, this street is so long, why worry about what lies beyond its end . . .
Another corner - the last corner. Now Madame Guillotine comes into view. But still, one may turn one's back on her in a last, desperate attempt to avert the inevitable . . . the crowd, many wearing red ribbon neck ties in a grisly parody of what is to follow, sing raucous songs, hoping for a botched, extended execution . . . The executioner appears: it's time to mount the fifteen steps to the scaffold! How far are fifteen steps, each one a memory of a past era, each one almost a lifetime . . .
The last step: time to rest the head on the block, eyes closed against the wild death stares of the grisly inhabitants of the bloody basket beneath . . .

I hasten to say that it is not Andrew's move to L'Arche that prompts such ghoulish musings: for him, it is a marvelous opportunity, the best possible development. It is, rather, my selfishness speaking. After thirty-one years of being Andrew's mum, spending significant chunks of every day with him, what next? How do I cope with my Andrew-less existence?
One week from tomorrow, he goes. I invite you to walk these last seven days, seven steps, with me; looking back over his early years, forward to what he can expect from his newfound friends at L'Arche, above all savoring the moments of these seven last days together.
Walk with me.

Monday, March 28, 2016

El Niño—or then again, perhaps not.

El Niño, March ‘16

“Ha, ha, ha" chortled the weatherman; "you can never say 'definitely' in weather forecasting, but this winter's El Niño looks like a done deal. There‘s no way it can’t happen.” Instantly, signs sprouted along the roadways: Get your sandbags here! We have emergency rations, and you're gonna need them!! Water! Matches! Firewood! Stock Up NOW!!!" After five years of crippling drought, we in Southern California were ecstatic. A water bonanza! What could possibly go wrong?

Obviously something did, or I wouldn’t be writing this. "El Niño", the little boy charged with the important job of bringing water to the parched West Coast of the United States of America, has apparently been waylaid by a meteorological old man in a scruffy raincoat, handing out candy in the Seattle area. (Seattle has enjoyed its wettest winter on record, thank you very much.) El Niño continues his journey south, lavishing water on the Oregon coast (as if they need it) and Northern California (ditto, but at least it keeps the redwoods and marijuana plants happy); but just about the time that he reaches San Luis Obispo, about 100 miles north of Ojai where I live in desiccated splendor, the after effects of his sugar high kick in. He curls up, exhausted, and falls fast asleep.

This is why, in the massive face of this record El Niño, Ojai’s rainfall total for the year is precisely .05" higher than last year. That's right; one half of one tenth of an inch. There is still hope: our alleged "rainy season" lasts until the end of April. Maybe in the next few weeks, having indulged his sweet tooth, El Niño will deign to come on down to SoCal and dump at least 20 inches of blessed rainfall on our thirsty landscape.

Otherwise, I’m afraid the weathermen are going to have to eat their words. And since there won’t be any cooling draft of H20 to wet their pipes, I'm sorry to say that I hope they choke on them.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea: Part the Third.

What You Will Need: One ceramic teapot; cups or mugs of fine bone china; tea bags or, for the purist, loose-leaf tea; a small jug of 4% milk; sugar lumps and tongs.

Fill the kettle with enough water for as many cups of tea as you desire. Bear in mind that there is a drought here in Southern California, and refrain from filling the pot for an entire rugger team if all you want is one cup for yourself. Even if there is no drought where you live, there very well could be. Besides, using power to heat all that water just to throw it away doesn't make sense. End of politically correct admonition.

Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. What is that? Let me tell you what it is not: if you see little bubbles all around the edge politely popping as if to say, Will this do? The answer is an emphatic no, it will not. If the entire contents of the kettle are seething with bubbles that refuse to give up, that's more like it! Notice that the bubbles keep popping as you remove the kettle from the source of heat and take it to….

… Oh crumbs, I forgot about the tea! While the kettle is coming to the boil, heat the pot with water from the hot tap. This will take no more than two minutes. Drought hint number two: use the teapot water to heat the cups or mugs. What should these be made of? There is little doubt in my mind that tea tastes better drunk from bone china. There is equally little doubt that the more expensive china has been crossed with lemmings: put it anywhere near the edge of a table and it will hurtle to its doom the second your back is turned. Thwart its self-destructive tendencies by purchasing pre-used cups from the thrift store, and save the best stuff until you have friendly eyes to help you watch over it and there are no happy Great Dane tails wagging enthusiastically at prime teacup level.

A word about cleanliness: the saying, "what the eye don't see, the heart don't grieve for" might have been made for teapots. Why else would a Brown Betty be brown, if not to hide the thin patina of scum remaining from previous brews? (Relish, if you will, "patina" and "scum" appearing in the same sentence. If you look up "patina" you'll see that it's a bit of a stretch applied to a ceramic teapot since it usually describes metal, but anything in the cause of tea, wouldn't you agree?) The same cannot, however, be said of teacups; these must be scrupulously clean and, drought or no drought, equally scrupulously rinsed. There's nothing more destructive to an ace cuppa than the chemical tang of dish soap.

My favorite tea is Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Blend, which I buy from Amazon in boxes of 160 bags, and very good it is, indeed it is. My husband Robin, on the other hand, swears by Barry’s Irish. The funny thing is that blind taste tests have proved that neither one of us can tell the difference, yet we stick faithfully to our avowed favorite.  Both are best when allowed to steep no more than ten minutes; theoretically, tea bags can more readily be removed than loose leaves; I wish I could say that I do so with any regularity.

I close with two anecdotes that illustrate rather different tastes in tea strength. When breakfasting in a B&B in Clonmacnoise, Eire, Robin was offered a pot of tea with his full Irish breakfast. Somewhat to his surprise, the waitress produced a little tin teapot from her apron pocket and asked him in all seriousness, “Will you be taking five bags or six?” Without skipping a beat, he opted for six.

On the other extreme, my mother was helping the Ladies’ Guild of her church in Everett, Washington, as they prepared tea for a social function. Quite a number of guests were expected, and the Enormous Ceremonial Urn was brought out and filled with (almost) boiling water. The person in charge of teabags dug out from the back of a cupboard a half-empty box of Lipton’s that looked as if it had been there for years; having unwrapped the first, she reached for a second, saying brightly, “I don’t think two would be too many, do you?”

It’s as well my mother had no liquid in her mouth at the time, or it would have surely ended up sprayed through her nose. Many’s the chuckle we’ve enjoyed over that story: “To each his own,” indeed!         

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea: Part The Second

The finest cup of tea I ever tasted was made for me by Mrs. Taylor. Tiny and silver-haired when I was born, to my eyes she aged not a day until her last illness twenty-eight years later. She lived in Winchester, near the cathedral immortalized in song by the New Vaudeville Band, and it was there that I arrived by train to visit her one drear afternoon in October,

Preparation for The Taking Of The Tea (I soon realized that tea prepared with such painstaking attention to detail demanded a formal title) began in her clean but comfortably lived-in kitchen. (I should mention that Mrs. Taylor was the only person I knew whose house never needed cleaning—at least I presumed it didn’t, since it was never dirty nor did I ever once see her with a dust rag in hand.) On the tea tray went a cloth of white linen with an exquisite cutwork embroidery design, and two matching napkins. The cloth was almost obscured by two teacups of finest bone china in a delicate floral pattern, a matching milk jug, a bowl to catch the drips from the tea strainer, a teapot complete with elegant cozy, and a thermal jug whose function was as yet shrouded in mystery.

In the kitchen, I witnessed Mrs. Taylor warming the pot, then adding a quantity of tea leaves so surprisingly large that I wondered fleetingly whether she had been taking lessons from the keepers at Bristol Zoo. I was greatly relieved when, in the comfort of the sitting room, our chairs on either side of the fireplace and the tray on the small table between us, it turned out that the thermos flask was full of just-below-boiling-point water that she used to dilute the extraordinarily strong output of the teapot. There was something almost mesmerizing about watching her pour, first the milk, then the incredibly strong tea, then the very hot water, until the cup was the exact taste I preferred. Oh, I'm forgetting the sugar! Mrs. Taylor was well aware I did not take sugar, and she certainly knew that neither did she, but there was a bowl of sugar lumps, complete with tongs, to spare me the embarrassment of having to ask, "just in case" I had changed my mind.

Gradually I became aware that I was witnessing a ceremony from a bygone era. The goal was not, as is the norm today, the speedy production of a large quantity of tea to be slurped from hefty ceramic mugs, but rather the making of individual, six ounce cups of tea, each one perfectly tailored to its intended drinker.

There didn't seem to be quite enough air in the room. At least, as I sat up ramrod straight, frantically trying to avoid disappointing her expectations of a tea guest, I found it hard to breathe; in retrospect, I can relate to the female actors of Downton Abbey who described how restrictive their crushingly tight corsets were. It’s hard to misbehave when you can scarcely breathe!

The funny thing, looking back, is that it was all about love, though the word was never spoken.  It was love that lay behind Mrs. Taylor’s extraordinary attention to detail in giving me a tea experience that remains vivid thirty-five years later; it was love that made me so desperately eager to please her in return. I imagine she fed me sandwiches and delectable little tea cakes, but I honestly don’t remember.
The love was in the teapot, and that’s what I recall.     

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea - Part The First

How may I approach such an exalted topic? Do I dare presume to add to the reams already penned on the subject? Perhaps the via negativa is the way to go, since for some reason it seems easier to state what a thing is not than what it is: and so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you My Two Worst Ever Cups of Tea.

How well I remember my first cuppa in America: the memory pains me deeply, indeed, the wounds have scarcely healed after all these years. The waitress seemed to smirk as she delivered me a stone cold cup and saucer, on which lay a dispirited-looking teabag still in its paper envelope. Next to it, a small metal teapot betrayed no reassuring signs of heat; indeed, I could touch it quite comfortably with my bare fingertips.
Now, the first and cardinal rule of making tea, dinned into me since early childhood by every significant adult in my life, is this: Always Use Freshly Boiling Water.
Aghast at such a flagrant breaking of this law, but keenly aware that every passing second only made matters worse, I hastened the tea bag from its envelope into the cup. As expected, when I added the "boiling" contents of the teapot, the only perceptible change was a slight staining of the water in the immediate vicinity of the tea bag. Leaving it for several minutes did little to help, and neither did the addition of the synthetic contents of the little plastic pot of “creamer”.

It was the most insipid cup of tea I have ever had the misfortune to drink.

At the opposite end of the tea-making spectrum lies the choice brew served up by the zookeepers at Bristol Zoo. In his youth, my brother Ian (same name as our Eldest Son Iain, just with a different spelling) got a summer job tending the zoo’s animal inhabitants, and among his tasks was that of Chief Teamaker for the Animal Keepers’ Tea Break.  As he was to discover, there was quite an art to this, a strict protocol that came as something of a shock to Ian’s system, and had to be followed to the letter.
First, the pot. This was lined with a thick, tannin-rich scum, built up over years (decades?) of use and no cleaning whatsoever. Ian’s life nearly came to an untimely end the day he tried to help by giving the pot a good scour . . . His vocabulary was greatly enlarged that day, but there weren’t too many places he was welcome to try it out: certainly not at the Prentice family dinner table.
Next, the tea leaves which had to be PGTips (loose, of course—no sissy teabags for this rugged bunch.) How many teaspoons? Well, there’s a daft question! Just pour in the right amount, straight from the packet. If your spoon can stand up in the finished slurry, it’s strong enough. At this stage, milk and sugar were added and the whole given a thorough stir before the final stage: filling the pot with freshly boiling water (at last, something we can agree on!) stirring it once more and leaving it to steep for at least fifteen minutes to allow the full glory of the tannins to develop. Not tannic acid, mind you; this is not found in tea. Tannins, or thearubigins, are found a-plenty, and may cause antioxidant activity. Hooray! Tea’s a health food—I always knew as much!

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the magical brew favored by Mrs. Patmore, Agatha Christie (“Tea! Bless ordinary everyday afternoon tea!") as well as by my Welsh grandmother, whose every afternoon was punctuated at 4 o’clock on the dot by a singsong, “Now what I’d like is a nice cup of tea.” All other activity came to a halt until Gran had her Willow Pattern teacup in hand and an episode of The Archers, an early farming soap opera that she followed faithfully, on the radio.

But what went into making that daily cup of ambrosia will have to wait until Part The Second.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits": Part the First, March 2016

You can take the mother out of the homeschool, but you can’t take the homeschooler out of this mother . . . especially when it comes to (ta-da) . . . Unit Studies!
Take this morning, for instance, when I happened upon the seemingly innocuous phrase, “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits.”
Harmless enough, you may think . . . But not for a home-educating parent who thinks in unit studies. She would take this phrase and milk it for every possible drop of teaching content. You will be surprised how much there is!

Let me show you how it works for me, in hopes that you’ll find something you can use, or at least be infected by my enthusiasm. Let’s start with:
1)   “Goodbye”: the word originated in the late 1500’s; “Godbwye,” a contraction of “God be with ye”, was soon further shortened to a simple “goodbye.“ To find the reason behind this truncation, have the whole family say godbwye every time they leave the house—or just a room—for one day. Which is easier to say, godbwye or “bye”? Is anything lost in the simplification?
2)   “Thank you” and gifts: thank you letters always made me feel sick with guilt; I knew my children should write them, and I really meant to make them, but so much got in the way … End result, everybody felt bad, (especially me) and the letters never got written.
Now that I have 20/20 hindsight, I can do it right: I create a “Thank You Box” with paper, stickers, crayons, envelopes and postage stamps, and make producing one thank you letter per day part of every school day till they are all done. (I find that glitter helps.) The box makes it easy for the children, while envelopes and stamps make addressing and mailing easy for me until the children are old enough to do it themselves. I call attention to articles about letter-writing going out of style, and the children feel proud to be different.
We have fun brainstorming situations where thanks are appropriate.  These include Worship of God; thanks for gifts (of time, kindness, money, physical things etc.) Who do we suppose wrote the first thank you letter? What did it look like? Might it have been a scratch on a rock? A whale tooth? A feather? (I like that—a thank you feather!) When have I been particularly touched by a gift? Can I give a gift like that to someone I love? Do gifts always have to cost money? 

Google and read out loud the poem ‘Bobby’s Presents’ by Elsie Duncan Yale. Bobby buys things he wants for himself, and gives them to his family members—a baseball for mother, a bat for daddy, a jack-knife for baby . . . Being a thoughtful chap, he realizes that these gifts may not be entirely suitable right now, so he’ll borrow them—just for a while . . .
The poem is, of course, intended to be humorous. But I have a friend whose husband and two adult sons really like Games of Thrones, and just guess what she got for Mother’s Day last year? (and, I believe, her birthday as well!)Perhaps her husband should have read ‘Bobby’s Presents’ as a boy.

So I only got through goodbye and thank you; that’s what happens with unit studies.
Tune in next time to discover what happens . . . beyond the rabbit-proof fence!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

To Draw, That We Might See: Part The Second (Still February ’16)

As I hope you recall, my last blog left you on tenterhooks, perched on the edge of your seat, pondering the burning question: Was John Ruskin, the famous nineteenth century London art critic, pleased by the advent of the camera? Would he have been thrilled out of his tree by the miraculous technology of today’s tiny cell phone camera, which puts capturing both panoramic vistas and intricately detailed close ups into the hands of the rank amateur?
As you may have deduced (aided, perhaps, by the title of this blog) the answer is a resounding no. Cameras, Ruskin came to believe, stop us seeing. He noticed that would-be photographers were so preoccupied with their cameras, so busy twiddling and fiddling with various knobs, that they quite forgot to look at the particular bit of the universe that had inspired them in the first place. Not so with the gentle art of sketching; having selected the scene, the artist takes out her sketchbook, pencils and paper, finds a place to sit that is neither too hot nor too cold, too bright nor too shady, carefully sizes up her subject, and finally puts pencil to paper. Producing even a simple sketch requires several minutes of intense looking, and it is in the looking that the magic happens.
Ruskin became a passionate enemy of the camera and promoter of drawing—indeed, he spent four years on a campaign to get people sketching again. He wrote books, gave speeches and funded art schools that still flourish today—schools that were (at least in his day) dedicated not to drawing well, but to drawing at all. His ideal was that people should slow down and smell the coffee (which had become quite a popular drink by his time): “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
How beautiful is that—“his glory is not . . . in going, but in being”? (By “man”, of course, Ruskin and everyone else at his time, and many people today,  myself included, understand “and woman.”)
Ruskin died in January, 1900—the year the chief of the Patent Office famously observed that it might as well be shut down, since everything that possibly could be invented, had been (was ever a statement as colossally and monumentally wrong as that!) I am glad, for his sake, that Ruskin wasn’t born a century later, and so was spared the frenetic acceleration of life brought about, first by the motorcar, then by the computer.
So today, in honor of John Ruskin and all the many 20th century self-help gurus who have rediscovered the beauty of life in the slow lane, I invite you and your children to join me on the cool, unhurried pages of a sketchbook. And when you have produced a drawing —you’ll notice, I didn’t say “a good drawing”—whip out your cell phone, snap a photo, and save it till I’ve figured out how you’ll send it to me.