03 August 2018

Cluny Brown

There's a periodic book column in the New York Times, called "The Enthusiast", described as "an occasional column dedicated to the books we love to read and reread." Several months ago, the column's subject was Margery Sharp - an author heretofore unknown to me (despite a whole mess of children's books that seem like books I should know). Charmed by the description of "Cluny Brown", I put it on hold at the library. And waited. And read some other books. And finally, a couple of weeks ago, "Cluny Brown" was mine to borrow.

I picked it up and was irrationally pleased to find that it was in that increasingly rare library binding: indestructible buckram. The cover is brown on beige, in a sort of feathered marble pattern.

The title is stamped on the spine in no-nonsense capitals.

And best, because it's a book that's been in circulation since about 1972, it's got a due date card pocket inside the back cover. Which, in my considered opinion, is the best place to store your bookmark.

So much pleasure from the merely physical aspects of the book. And! But! Happily, it is a wonderful book. Cluny is an idiosyncratic character of the highest order, and moves through life in a rather different plane than those around her. A plumber's niece, she has the temerity to take herself to tea at the Ritz "all on her own, to see what it was like."

At the end of Chapter 4, a foreign visitor has arrived at the Devon country house at which Cluny is now in service as a parlormaid.

Thus layer by layer, without any conscious effort, the oyster that was Friars Carmel smoothed and overlaid its grain of sand, producing, like a pearl, a distinguished Professor, met at a British Embassy, recovering from an operation, and fond of horses.

No such process, naturally, was applied to the new parlormaid.

Indeed, her entrance, at the beginning of Chapter 5, is spectacular and distinctly unparlourmaidlike:

Cluny Brown arrived at Friars Carmel in a Rolls-Royce.

Cluny simply doesn't act in the ways in which people expect a plumber's niece parlourmaid to act. She's delightful, and so is the book.

01 August 2018

Yes. Yes I have.

For reasons of my own, I changed my diet a couple of months ago. Mind you, I am not dieting, I am not on a diet. If I were on a diet, I wouldn’t be having that glass of Sauvignon Blanc with Rachel Maddow every night, now would I?

No, I changed my diet to address a health situation. I’ve done this before - I went on a strict low-fat diet when I was pregnant because my gall bladder up and rebelled and a low-fat diet is what held surgery at bay, because like any sane person I was trying to avoid a gall bladder removal while enceinte. It’s one of those things that’s doable, but better to avoid, IYKWIM.

The inadvertent side effect of the change in diet is that I’ve lost weight. I don’t know really know how much, because I don’t own a scale, but several pairs of jeans are now sporting Frankensteinian alterations. (Let’s put it this way: I can’t go out in public with my shirt tucked in, unless I’m wearing a cardigan, if I’m wearing those jeans.) And people - friends, co-workers, acquaintances - have commented. “Have you lost weight?” “You’ve lost weight.” “Hey, skinny!” “You look great!”

And here’s what makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Every time I hear that “you’ve lost weight”, I also hear an unstated condemnation. “You needed to lose weight.” “You were too fat.” Telling me I look great means I didn’t look great before?

It is unsettling.

Mind you, I’m not unhappy about the weight loss. It’s not because of a “bad” “condition” like cachexia - it’s because of the food choices I’ve been making. I’m down to something like how much I was when I got pregnant 15 years ago, and I’ve been higher than my delivery weight for a few years now.

But, like friend on Facebook said recently, “The assumption that any weight loss is chosen freely and a cause for celebration is a big cultural enshrinement of fatphobia and I'm so done with it.”

Not too long ago, I came across a blog post that talked about this very issue: weight loss is not always desired, not always healthy, not always good. Thinner is not necessarily better. Kim Bongiorno says “Why feel shame about our beautiful bodies? Each is different, and it’s wonderful”.

She says it a lot better than I can, and I urge you to read her post.

Or read Roxane Gay. She curated a series on Medium, called Unruly Bodies, exploring all of this stuff.

If you’d rather, read Gay’s book Hunger. She writes beautifully about so many things: race, privilege, body image, personhood, education, intelligence. But how she talks about being fat - really fat - is powerful stuff, especially at the intersection of public opinion and internal struggle.

p. 120 (chapter 31) - "When you're overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects"...[people make comments]..."They forget you are a person. You are your body, nothing more, and your body should damn well become less."

p. 137 - "What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?"

p. 175 (chapter 51) - "I have two wardrobes." "...every day...These are the clothes I feel safe in." "My other wardrobe, the one that dominates most of my closet, is full of the clothes I don't have the courage to wear." "When I slide back into my uniform, that cloak of safety returns."

p. 205 - "This is no way to live but this is how I live."

Our bodies are ours. Think twice before you say something about weight loss or weight gain. Do you really want to mention the dark circles under someone's eyes? Like my niece said once, “Commentary on my looks or anyone's is not welcome banter.”

Although, I’ll not be unhappy if you notice that my hair is a little bit purple, because that - dying my hair an eccentric color - amuses the hell out of me.

30 July 2018

Crazy Trip™

I have a friend who is wont to fly off to an exotic (or domestic) locale, for merely a long weekend. She calls those Crazy Trips™. This weekend, we emulated her.

The child is attending a two week summer camp, in upstate New York, roughly midway between Buffalo and Rochester. She needed to be dropped off yesterday, a Sunday, so I came up with the glorious idea of driving to Niagara Falls on Saturday, and staying overnight. Because, in all my born days, I had never been to Niagara Falls.

So off we went, early in the morning. We dropped our stuff at our overpriced mediocre hotel and headed straight for Canada. The falls are indeed spectacular, and indeed better seen from Canada.

Horseshoe Falls, from Canada

Note red navigation buoy near falls. If you're navigating near there, I think you're toast.

After a side trip driveby of scenic Niagara on the Lake, we retreated to our depressing hotel, where the TV set defaulted to Fox News.

In the morning, we walked down to the Niagara Falls State Park (proximity being the only saving grace of the mediocre hotel), and got on line for the Maid of the Mist because I am a sucker for a good tourist attraction, and the Maid of the Mist is, as my friend Yale said to me on Facebook, "the shit". I grinned like a fool for the entire little trip into the waterfall.

Horseshoe Falls from Maid of the Mist

American Falls in the foreground, as seen from the cantilevered viewing platform at the top of the elevator down to the boats

Then we hit the road.

My demand for the weekend had been Niagara Falls; my husband's was an exploration of the Erie Canal. Lockport was the location of a double set of five locks when the canal was originally built; later, a modern two step set was built alongside. The old locks are partly extant, and on weekends, a team of volunteers demonstrate the workings of the hand-moved wooden gates. Happily we got to Lockport at just the right moment - a paddlewheeler and two kayakers were coming through the 100 year old "modern" lock, and the volunteers were putting the adjacent antique gates through their paces.

Antique canal lock gate, at Lockport

One of my favorite bits was the pair of men in t-shirts labeled STAFF. On closer inspection, they turned out to be staff of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, some two hundred miles to the east. I asked one, "busman's holiday?" He grinned and copped as such.

Even though we'd seen Lake Ontario from Niagara on the Lake, we decided to detour north before heading for camp. We ended up in Olcott, a tiny adorable town with a 25 cent carousel and a Wurlitzer Band Organ. Why yes, I did have to stop and make a video.

Because it was awesome, and it was right there.

Boxes of Wurlitzer Band Organ rolls

Finally, we walked over to the shores of Lake Ontario. I wasn't prepared to go swimming, but I did have waterproof sandals on, so in I went. It's the first time I've been in a Great Lake.

Lake Ontario

To the child's great happiness, we concluded our sightseeing and headed straight to camp.

Signed, sealed, delivered, a whirlwind 24 hours.

10 July 2018

Summer Kitchen

For, I dunno, the past 10 years, I've been saying to my husband that I want an electric oven installed in the garage. You see, I love to bake and I especially like to bake in the summer when there are summer fruits like rhubarb and peaches and other things that demand to be made into cobblers and galettes and pies and crisps. And, in my mind, it's totally logical to have an oven in the garage, because the garage door opens into the kitchen, and the last time the kitchen was renovated (before us), all the cabinets were recycled into a work area in the garage (and another in the cellar).

And the reason that I don't bake so much in the summer is that the house is only very lightly air-conditioned, specifically window units in the two upstairs bedrooms and nothing on the first floor, and who wants to turn on the oven in the summer heat?

Finally, over the weekend, I had a brainstorm. Since it didn't seem like I was getting a real oven in the garage anytime soon because running a 220V line was going to be complicated and expensive, I thought hey, they make big fancy toaster ovens, that'll do.

A modicum of internet research and an online order later, I am now the proud owner of a toaster oven big enough for 9 slices of toast, a whole chicken, or a 13" pizza.

Let the baking commence!

23 June 2018


I engaged in some gonzo gardening today. The quince had grown up and over on one side, and the privet and a burning bush had grown up and over on the other, and the little path of grass down the side of the yard to the lower terrace had become a tunnel. Besides the fact that the grass didn't much like all the shade, the tunnel wasn't quite head high, so it was an ordeal to transverse.

Out came the loppers. Chop, chop, chop and I had a pile of branches to haul down the hill. As I came back up, my heart stopped: there was a bird's nest in the grass, wrenched out of the quince.

I didn't find any evidence of eggs, so I am hoping that it was an unused or vacated nest.

But when I picked it up, my heart sobbed again. Besides grasses and twigs, one of the building materials for the nest was the cellophane wrapper from a pack of cigarettes.

Shall I be glad that the bird was so cleverly thrifty? Or sad that the cigarette wrapper was there for the taking?

The glass, she is half full and she is half empty.

28 April 2018

It Takes Three To Land A Steelhead

Back in 1998, I went on a fishing/camping trip with my father, my husband, three other family members, three guides and a baggage barge guy who set up camp every night. We were on the Deschutes, in Oregon - a beautiful river that flows north from Bend to the Columbia. We traveled downstream in boats, but stopped to fish; fishing is only allowed from the bank.

I'd been skeptical about spending four days on the water, and three nights in tents, but it turned out to be the perfect vacation - there were no decisions to be made except whether to change your underwear. And that was a serious consideration, because it was cold enough that your wet boot laces were iced up every morning.

At one point, we had a hella exciting run with a fish, which my father wrote up for some fishing oriented magazine - but they never published it. Because he was writing for publication, he left out a key detail: at some point we scrabbled into the boat and chased that fish downstream.

A couple of weeks ago, he mailed me a copy of what he'd written, followed by the photos. Since it never did get published, I'm sharing it now.

Here's what he wrote, nearly twenty years ago.

While steelhead fishing on the great Deschutes River in Oregon this past October, my daughter, Maggie, and I had a singular experience with a beautiful, wild, male steelhead. Maggie was fishing upstream of me with Dan Bastian of Rising Trout Guides and Outfitters in Bend, Oregon. We were near Kaskela, about 18 miles downriver from Warm Springs, at the foot of the Mutton Mountains. She was working a brown stonefly nymph with a trailing small green rock worm, tied by Bill Sheppard, who was also guiding with Dan on the trip. The green rock worm was tied on a #2457 Tiemco hook, size 12, with a rainbow crystal bead behind the eye, a light green vinyl body and a grey ostrich herl behind the bead.

Maggie was having some success with the nymphing rig and Dan took the rod to demonstrate how she could cover more water by making longer casts and mending the line. On his second cast there was a terrific slashing strike; immediately, the fish made a heroic, acrobatic leap. Dan clearly saw the green rock worm in the mouth of a beautiful, very colorful, steelhead.

The fish hit the water and took off downstream like an express train. I heard the commotion behind me and looked back to see Maggie and Dan in the river. I heard Dan ask Maggie "are you ready?" and saw him hand her the charged rod. The rod, a four-piece six-weight Sage with a #2 Ross Gunnerson reel, was pointing straight downstream. The reel sang as I watched the line and backing disappearing after the steelhead.

I headed upstream for the camera and as I pulled abreast of Maggie I shouted "raise your rod tip!" She tried but could not. I dropped my rod, vest and wading staff and joined her in the river. Try as she might, Maggie could not lift the rod; she calmly turned to me and said "Pop, the line is all gone." She showed me the reel; the backing was down to the spindle. I took the rod and ran.

I was struck by the fact that the hook, the leader, the line and the backing all held; there was a straight pull between me and the fish. I stumbled downstream and finally began to gain backing. I was able to get out of the river and make better progress on dry land.

At one point, as I ran on, the fish slipped into an eddy downstream and seemed to stop. In a blink the rod shot straight up, the backing twisted around the rod near the tip top and the rod came apart at the top section. In a word - a "mess." Trying to stay calm, I untangled the backing and reassembled the rod; I took up the strain and felt that the fish was still on. Off I went.

As I rounded a bend in the river, Maggie, Dan and his McKenzie River boat caught up to me and the fish moved into a wide, shallow area of calm water. Both the fish and I were out of gas.

Dan got out of the boat, Maggie got the camera and together we landed, photographed and released a very beautiful, wild Deschutes River steelhead.

On examination, we found that the green rock worm was impaled in the pectoral fin of the fish, the tippet on the rock worm was broken and the stonefly nymph was in the fish's tail. We surmised that when the steelhead first jumped, it hit the leader with its tail and broke off the rock worm, only to hook itself on the stonefly nymph. The fish's hectic, powerful rush downriver was explained by it being foul-hooked in the tail. We carefully removed the hooks, rested the steelhead and sent him on his way. We all agreed that it was fortunate that the gear held and we were able to free the fish of the hooks and line.

I hope that this fish will reproduce and put his determination and indomitable will into future generations so that the Deschutes River will continue to be an exciting, as well as beautiful, place to fish in the years ahead.

Thanks, Pop.

16 April 2018

Doulas, Mortality and Racism

Did you read the cover story in yesterday's New York Times magazine? It's titled "Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis" and it is a compelling, and heartbreaking, and horrifically shocking tale of infant and maternal mortality in the US, in particular in black women and babies. Read it. Read it and get fired up. This is wrong. Here are a few excerpts:

Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel. In one year, that racial gap adds up to more than 4,000 lost black babies. Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.
The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality — the death of a woman related to pregnancy or childbirth up to a year after the end of pregnancy — is now worse than it was 25 years ago. Each year, an estimated 700 to 900 maternal deaths occur in the United States…Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts, according to the C.D.C.
The reasons for the black-white divide in both infant and maternal mortality have been debated by researchers and doctors for more than two decades. But recently there has been growing acceptance of what has largely been, for the medical establishment, a shocking idea: For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death. And that societal racism is further expressed in a pervasive, longstanding racial bias in health care — including the dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms — that can help explain poor birth outcomes even in the case of black women with the most advantages.

I don't know about you, but I am appalled. Part of me wants to quit my my job and become a doula, or an advocate for women's health, or a midwife, or something. Since none of that seems all that practical, I searched up the organizations mentioned in the Times article as working in this sphere. I'll make some donations; maybe you want to too. Because I like doing my due diligence, the link to the 990s for the non-profits is included.


BirthWaves provides families with doula services after the loss of their pregnancy or infant. Services will be provided by unbiased, nonjudgmental and caring individuals who are trained to offer bereavement support. BirthWaves does not discriminate based on race, religion, income or any other social or economic status.

Physicians for Reproductive Health

Physicians for Reproductive Health unites the medical community and concerned supporters. Together, we work to improve access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, especially to meet the health care needs of economically disadvantaged patients.

Sisters Keeper (Mother Health International)

Mother Health International (MHI) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to respond and provide relief to pregnant women and children in areas of disaster, war and extreme economic poverty. We are committed to reducing maternal, infant and child mortality rates by creating culturally competent and sustainable birth centers using the midwifery model of care. We currently work with midwives in areas where the burden of perinatal mortality is extremely high. In each country we have clinics staffed by traditional midwives who work side by side with local nurse midwives and visiting ‘resident’ midwives from around the world.

Sistersong (Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective)

Sistersong’s mission is to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights.

The last organization isn't actually a non-profit; it's a collective. They do ask for donations, though, and they are the organization that helped Simone Landrum birth her last child, her third child and fourth pregnancy.

Birthmark Doulas

Birthmark Doula Collective is a birth justice organization dedicated to supporting, informing and advocating for pregnant and parenting people and their families in New Orleans.

Pregnant woman need appropriate health care, babies need to be born alive, and endemic racism has to stop.