Monday, January 31, 2011

Snowed Under

You folks in the Midwest  are hunkering down right now for the Big One—a storm that will drop maybe two feet of snow on you.  Cry me a river.  Here in Massachusetts we’ve received four feet of snow in the past month and that is just 2.5 inches short of the all-time record of 50.9 inches in January 2005.

And now they’re predicting 15 inches or more in the next three days. We’ll be watching those dirty frozen mountains in the parking lots melting far past Easter.

So here are some photos I want to share with you.

Up on top is our street sign—Nelson St—where it connects at our corner with Route 140.  (We’re just on the Grafton side of the Shrewsbury line.)  As on every other street in Massachusetts, you have to creep fearfully forward in your car onto the highway because you can’t see around the drifts if a monster truck is hurtling toward you.

This is how our swimming pool looks.  There’s a tiny fish pond at the far end of it.  I wonder if the fish are surviving in there under all that snow.

This is the picket fence that divides our front yard from the lower back  field where the pool is located.

I would like to offer the icicle coming off our roof (below)  to the Guinness Book of Records as the largest icicle in the world.  It reached the ground long ago, and, as you can see, it incorporates several phone lines and such. Has anybody out there got a bigger icicle than this one?

I keep waiting for it to fall and take out our electricity but so far we still have lights—and the Christmas lights on the front-door wreath and the lighted family of geese on the front lawn are still lighted because no one can get to the outdoor electric plug, so the geese are burning brightly under the snow.  Today I saw a spot of green emerge that is the mother goose’s hat.

Here is my car as it looked when I started cleaning it after the last storm.  The young man with the snow blower is from the father-son team who come around and plow our driveways. (Upper and lower driveways.) They’re making a whole lot of money this year and whenever there’s a snow holiday, the teenage son goes skiing.  He really likes snow.  During the last storm, his father’s truck and plow got stuck while clearing our driveway and they spent nearly an hour getting it unstuck.

I grew up in Minnesota and tend to scorn the complaints of  Massachusetts natives with the comment, “You Yankees  don’t know what a snowstorm is.  Back in Minnesota we sometimes had to get out of our house through the second floor window.”

But I sure can’t remember an icicle back in Minnesota to compare with this one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Liminal Stages and Death on the Internet

I thought I’d introduce this subject with a photo of a fabulous horse-drawn hearse that I saw in Granada, Nicaragua.  The coffin rides like Sleeping Beauty inside the glass compartment, and you’ll notice that the horses are draped with crocheted blankets.  "Why?" I asked.  "Because this is a very serious time,” I was told.)

My husband claims that I’ve been preparing for death ever since my twenties--over 40 years ago.  I guess that’s what you get when you marry a hypochondriac with a gloomy Scandinavian background. (Remember in "Annie Hall" when Diane Keaton and Woody Allen were breaking up and sorting out their books? She said something like: “All the books with ‘Death’ in the title are yours.”  You should see my library.)

So about death. Like everything else, dying has apparently been transformed by  the creation of the internet.  I think we’re all familiar with on-line memorial pages where mourners can post their condolences and memories of the dear departed.

In today’s New York Times (Jan. 25) there’s a front-page story reporting that  funeral homes are now offering bereaved families the opportunity to invite friends and relatives who can’t make it to the actual funeral to watch the services live on the computer and then re-view the tape over and over again. Some of the companies offering this service to undertakers are FuneralOne, and  Event by Wire.  Even the famous Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel in Manhattan is introducing a webcasting program.

Some funeral directors offer the on-line funeral service for free, according to The Times, and others charge $100 to $300.  A family can make the funeral broadcast open to the public or issue invitations along with a password. (I wonder, does Evite do funerals?) This service has allowed the military colleagues of a Marine killed in Afghanistan, for instance, to view his hometown funeral including the arrival at the airport, the graveside ceremony and the 21-gun salute.  The father of the young Marine said he watches the funeral over and over again on the computer. “I don’t know why, but I guess it’s healing.”

Two weeks ago, the cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine of Jan 9, 2011 --“Ghosts in the Machine”-- was all about what happens to the words and images of yourself that you’ve posted on the internet—after you die.  Will you be remembered by your last foolhardy Tweet?  By those embarrassing photos on Facebook? Entrepreneurs, according to The Times, are popping up who will manage your digital afterlife for a fee—acting as a virtual executor who will categorize, file, organize or just do away with your on-line self. 

Andy Fish, the artist and instructor who taught me about blogging and Photoshop and computer illustration, says that he plans another kind of digital immortality—in which he can communicate with his fans from beyond the grave.  Andy often writes  a week’s worth of posts for his blog, , and then schedules the dates on which they will be posted on Blogspot.  Using that facility, he plans to post an annual message on his birthday well into the next century, even if he’s already gone to his reward.

Death, of course is one of life’s major passages. So why not make some plans for it ahead of time? 

For a woman’s group I belong to, with a different topic for discussion every month, we once wrote and read aloud our obituaries. It was a worthwhile exercise.  Leaving a draft of one’s obituary probably would be helpful to  survivors as part of your  internet estate unless, like my husband, you already have an up-to-date bio on your computer for public appearances and press coverage.

(One of Nick’s colleagues at The New York Times back in the day was the head obituary writer. He was always amazed that he could get in to see anyone—no matter how important—by mentioning his job.  Every big shot cares about what his Times obituary will say about him.)

Speaking of life passages, daughter Eleni Gage just launched her blog “The Liminal Stage”, on New Year’s Eve, which she calls “The most liminal night of the year".  The subtitle is:  “Navigating a modern world with the help of time-tested traditions.”

"Liminal" comes from the Latin word for “threshold” and Eleni has packed several liminal moments of her own into the last year: getting engaged, then married and moving from Manhattan to Miami. 

Here you see her at her wedding in Corfu, Greece, about to toss a decorated wedding bread to the single ladies behind her (a Corfiote twist on throwing the bouquet.)

Eleni  majored in Folk Lore and Mythology at college and, like me, she really loves learning about traditions, rituals, superstitions, divination – in all cultures.  She writes on her blog:
It’s precisely because people get anxious around liminal stages, and the questions they raise, that cultures develop rituals designed to bring comfort, protection, and luck…My family is Greek so we throw pomegranates on our doorstep to invite abundance, and sit down to a meal in which a lucky quarter (wrapped in tinfoil for hygiene) is hidden inside a meat pie. …Whoever finds the quarter is guaranteed a good year, an extra little burst of confidence with which to face the unknown future. That’s the point of rituals, and of this blog–to invite luck, to celebrate a given moment, and to use traditions to do what they always have–to give yourself the tiniest sense that you can control what happens to you, even if that’s just an illusion.”
 You can find Eleni’s blog at or by clicking on the title in my blog list to the right.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ode to a Chair (And Some Windows)

(Please click on the photos to make them bigger.)

When I travel, I seem to be drawn to photographing windows and doors.  And chairs.

The windows and doors intrigue me, I guess, because they hint at the mysteries that lie within.  I always want to open the door or peer in the window, but I never do.  I just take a photograph.

I even made a series of notecards featuring Greek windows.  Here (above and below) are eight of the shots.

Chairs, especially the caned taverna chairs that you see all over Greece, often painted blue, seem poignant to me, as if they’ve been abandoned or are waiting in vain for the old Greek men who used to sit in them, drinking ouzo or coffee and playing tavli, all the while clicking their worry beads in one hand.

Just now, when I traveled to Nicaragua, I was fascinated by the beautiful chairs I saw everywhere there—which were mostly rocking chairs—wicker or bentwood, Thonet style.  They were so graceful and elegant, with their S curves and lacey designs. (The wicker ones piled together  below are in a colonial mansion in Granada which is being restored.)

La Gran Francia, our hotel in Granada, even had some chairs attached to the wall as decoration.
In Granada, every small shop seemed to have a rocking chair inside or outside the front door, where the proprietor could sit and watch the world go by.  Many small homes had the same thing.

In wealthier homes, the rocking chairs were on the inside—usually near the central courtyard, positioned to take advantage of the garden views and the cool breezes that would flow through the house because the huge doors were left open, protected by wrought iron gates.

When we traveled to the island of Ometepe, created by two linked volcanoes in Lake Nicaragua, every little casita had its rocking chairs on the veranda, so you could sit and admire the view of the lake below, seen through the tropical trees, with background music from the monkeys and exotic birds.
Life in Nicaragua seemed so much slower and more contemplative, and everything was designed to make the most of the view. 
And when we traveled to Playa del Coco, staying in one of several villas looking out at the waves of the Pacific Ocean, there were plenty of rocking chairs or Adirondack chairs placed for the enjoyment of the surf and the sunset, which was different every night but never failed to provide lights and colors better than any Fourth of July fireworks display.

One of the lessons learned in Nicaragua was to just sit and rock and really take the time to appreciate the view/ sunset/ breeze or passing street scene.  I think that’s part of what Dominique Browning was talking about when she entitled her blog Slow Love Life. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Birthing Turtles in Nicaragua (part 2)

Yesterday I wrote about the sea turtle whom I called Olive (because she was an Olive Ridley turtle) who climbed onto our beach in Nicaragua under the protective eye of the Turtle Police and thought about laying her eggs here, but changed her mind and went back into the sea

Last night, about nine p.m., I was treated to a once-in-a-lifetime experience when Emilio (who is originally from Nicaragua and is now married to our daughter Eleni) took us two beaches away to La Flor Wildlife Refuge, one of seven beaches in Central America which protects the sea turtles who flock here in mass arrivals of thousands at a time (called arribadas) between August and December.  Each female turtle will lay as many as 100 eggs and bury them in the sand.

Then, 40 to 50 days later, the eggs hatch and great flocks of baby turtles emerge from the sand (usually at night) and crawl to the sea, building up their muscles during this dangerous trek when they are at the mercy of seabirds and other prey.

They launch themselves into the ocean and begin to swim--traveling as far away as Chile and Alaska.  Then, when the females are ready to lay their eggs, they return here to Nicaragua.

The biggest nesting crowds come in  November and December, so their eggs are hatching now.  The park rangers who man the  refuge are there day and night.  For about ten dollars (five dollars if you're local) they let you visit the beach at night and watch the babies emerge and  head for the sea.

Last night, when we arrived, they handed us a basket of baby turtles which had emerged during the day and been collected for their protection until nightfall.  They told us to follow the path straight ahead and to deposit the babies on the sand three meters before the surf.

They gave Emilio red cellophane to put around his lantern and warned us to take photos only without flash--I complied. (The baby turtles will follow any light in their effort to get into the water.)

On our way to the beach we encountered a group of visitors gathered around a large female turtle who was straining to lay her eggs in the sand.  We knew it was not our friend Olive from the day before, as she had a chunk out of her shell from a shark bite.

 Farther down we saw several huge flocks of babies emerging from the sand.  I dragged my feet and scuffled along, terrified of stepping on the babies

 Just ahead of the water we deposited "our" babies on the sand and then shouted encouragement as they headed for the light held by Emilio as he stood in shallow water.  He wanted to help the front runner  along, but we insisted he practice "tought love" so Speedy Gonzalez, as I dubbed him, developed the strength to swim to Alaska.

We stood, feet planted in the sand, while many babies crawled right over our feet and began to swim.  It was a thrilling experience--certainly one to put on your "bucket list" of things to do before you die.

Beside watching the birth of countless baby turtles, I saw the stars for the first time last night in all their splendor--a bowl of stars overhead, the familiar constellations I had studied as a child, but behind these familiar stars, there wasn't darkness, but a strange, foggy , bumpy background of light, like a chenille bedspread with a  faint glow.  I figured it must be the light reflected from far distant galaxies I'd never seen before.

The rangers at the refuge keep a hand-written chart of how many turtles come to lay their eggs each year.  The figure varies greatly from around 87,000 to as high as 186,000.  They predict from the numbers so far, that this will be a record year.

We all felt blessed to witness the birth of one of nature's  bravest and most endangered creatures.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Turtle (and Bird and Monkey) Watching in Nicaragua

We’re on Day Five in magical Nicaragua and we’ve encountered a lot of exotic tropical animals and flowers so far.

Yesterday we left the Island of Ometepe, made up of two connected volcanoes in gigantic Lake Nicaragua.  We sailed to the mainland and drove to San Juan Del Sur where, after driving about half an hour on an unpaved dirt road, we reached our friends’ villa on the beach called Playa del Coco.

Last night we watched a magnificent sunset as tiny hermit crabs scurried on the beach, leaving tracks like a zipper’s teeth.  

This morning the big excitement was when a sea turtle—I believe her species is called Olive Ridley-- landed on the beach and began plodding in to lay her eggs in the sand.

The men who are security guards for this complex of villas are also the turtle police, I discovered. 

They make sure no one gets close enough to the turtle to scare her, and once she digs a nest and lays her eggs and leaves, they will take the eggs to an incubator and keep them safe for forty days until they are ready to hatch. Then they’ll put them back in the nest to hatch and crawl back into the water. 

(I learned in Greece that the walk from the nest to the water is the most dangerous part of baby turtles’ life—they are often eaten by birds—but if you lift the turtles and carry them to the water, they will drown, because they need to develop their muscles on the trek to the water.)

Anyway, this lady turtle,( let’s call her Olive),  was watched from afar by us and the turtle police, (talking to each other by walkie talkies).  They pointed out that she had a chunk out of her shell because she had been bitten by a shark, but was fine anyway.

Unfortunately,  after finding a place for her nest, she was approached by a bird which evidently changed her mind,  and she  staggered slowly back to the water to perhaps  come up on another beach farther down  Olive was a bit off in her timing.  In August and September these turtles  storm ashore in flotillas of 3,000 or more at a time, completely covering the beach—according to  Lonely Planet, Nicaragua.  I just hope that Olive found a safe place to lay her eggs off season.

Yesterday, on the dirt road to Playa del Coco, we encountered some Mono Coco, which our hosts translated as Howler Monkeys. I didn’t hear them howl but was delighted to get a photo.

While still on La Isla de Ometepe we followed a path into the jungle looking for monkeys, but only encountered this baby pig.

 We also had fun eating in the excellent restaurant at Villa Paraiso--our resort of charming thatched-roof casitas--watching the large crested blue birds called Urraca perched near by, waiting to steal our food.  
One of them hopped on a nearby table, expertly removed the Saran wrap cover to the sugar bowl and dove in, evidently working up to a sugar high judging by the loud caws and various begging noises uttered as they begged for more food.  (My computer translates the Urracha as Magpies but I don’t believe it, since Magpies are black and white.  Can anyone tell me the English language name of these birds?)

Here is a photo of a dead fish I found on the beach this morning.  I thought it made a nice design.

Now I’m going out to explore the tide pool.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Billy Joel—Talking ‘Bout My Generation

On the first day of 2011, I was in my car, listening to the radio, when I heard Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

I was shocked to realize I hadn’t heard this song in maybe a decade. (It was released in 1989, when Billy Joel was 40.)

I was also surprised that, after all these years, I still could identify nearly every one of the dozens of names and places he mentions in a brilliant list of events and people that filled the lives his generation—the baby boomers.

In the news as 2011 dawned was the grim fact that the baby boomers, who have started turning 65 by the thousands every day,  may discover they’ve outlived  their  pensions and their social security payments, so they had better not retire just yet.

Because I was born in 1941, I’m too old to be a real baby boomer. (My younger brother qualifies.)  And because I will be turning seventy in February, 2011 is a year when I’ll be thinking about and writing a lot about getting old.  Because when you turn 70, there’s no way you can keep on thinking of yourself as middle-aged.  And you can’t help pondering, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night, the stage of life that comes next.   That would be dying.

Maybe Gail Sheehy will write a book, like “Passages”, on “How to Plan and Organize a Good Death”.  (I apologize for being so morbid, but my mother died at 74.  May of my husband’s relatives lived to well past 90, so he makes fun of me and my generally gloomy outlook.)  But let’s face it, our generation, which invented teenagers and rock ’n’ roll, does everything by the book.  And we need a guide to what comes next.

  When I learned that I was pregnant for the first time, I walked out of the doctor’s office and into a bookstore and bought several books on being pregnant—even though women since the beginning of time have been  having babies without reading a how-to book about it.

Anyway, hearing Billy Joel’s song made me realize that my children now in their thirties, who are very smart and  well-informed, probably wouldn’t recognize 50 percent of the names in that song. 

Billy Joel writes very clever lyrics (and his piano playing always fills me with envy).  I started to muse about how much more intelligent, funny and pertinent were some of the songwriters of my generation compared to what you hear today.   (That's just my opinion.  I'm sure Generation Y or whatever is current would disagree.) Take Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and of course John Lennon.  Leonard Cohen.  Judy Collins. Who writes lyrics like that today?  Lady Gaga?

Anyway, so you can share my trip down memory lane, I’m pasting below the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  See how any of them you can identify.  Now who’s going to write a similar list for our kids’ generation?

We Didn't Start The Fire
   ------Billy Joel

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio

Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, "The King and I", and "The Catcher in the Rye"

Eisenhower, vaccine, England's got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

Josef Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc

Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Toscanini, Dacron
Dien Bien Phu Falls, Rock Around the Clock

Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn's got a winning team
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland

Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Khrushchev
Princess Grace, Peyton Place, Trouble in the Suez

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Zhou Enlai, Bridge On The River Kwai

Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California Baseball,
Starkweather homicide, Children of Thalidomide

Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, Space Monkey, Mafia
Hula Hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go

U2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land,
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion

Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson

Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British Politician sex
J.F.K. blown away, what else do I have to say

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock

Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah's in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz

Hypodermics on the shores, China's under martial law
Rock and Roller cola wars, I can't take it anymore

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire
But when we are gone
It will still burn on, and on, and on, and on...