WRITING SHORT: 4/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

As long as I’ve known him, Bill has enjoyed televised nature programs. Me not so much. They’re almost always about strange birds in equatorial countries, animals struggling to reproduce and survive among predators, inhospitable areas of earth where indigenous men take prodigious risks to feed their families. So we used to trade off: a program for him, a program with more narrative thrust for me. This worked well because we both enjoy holding hands while watching, which usually trumped choice of what to watch.

Now as I grow older, Bill’s programs have become more difficult for me. I’m aware of what’s almost certainly coming. If it’s about northern wolves, a large starving bear will seize a wolf cub when its mother leaves to seek food. The cub is just a fluffy puppy really, tumbling about happily in his snowy new world. Why must he be mortally pierced  by those fierce fangs? Sometimes they also show you the blood on the snow, a shot of the bereft mother. “How can you stand it?” I demand. “I don’t look,” says Bill. “But that’s  life.  And the photography’s wonderful.”

Last night a sea lion on an iceberg in Antartica was hunted by a school of killer whales. The whales used teamwork to break up the iceberg till the sea lion was clinging to a scrap of ice. Then one whale caught his tail in its jaws. The camera focused directly on the face of the doomed sea lion being pulled backwards into the icy waters to what it must have known was its own sure death. From now on, Bill will have to admire his wonderful nature photography alone.

I know that’s life. I also know whose death it really is the thought of which I cannot bear.

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MYSTERY TREE

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We’ve lived at our present address since 2006 and have generally appreciated the grounds that “come” with our condo, but after eighty-plus years in cities, our horticultural know-how is pretty much nil.  I can identify daffodils and tulips outside, roses, orchids, sunflowers and lilies inside — but that’s about it. And during the time he still maintained a part-time practice in Princeton, Bill didn’t seem particularly curious about nature, either.

Until with time on his finally retired hands, he developed a new thirst for learning what was what. Now he’s always exclaiming about the beauty of this or that, and asking the names of growing things.  Looking out our bedroom window when we wake up, I scan the sky for the weather, he scans the trees.

So it is that whereas I consider the tree directly in front of the building just a tree and don’t ponder further, he has begun gazing lovingly at it first thing every day, especially since its branches developed white flowers a week ago. “Look, look!” he urged this morning.

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The tree we’re talking about is the one on the right. (Not the one with creamy parasol-shaped “flowers” at the lower left.)

“Mmm, lovely,” I agreed, heading for the bathroom.

“Take a picture,” he demanded.

“Now, in my nightgown?  It’s cloudy out today.  It wouldn’t be a good picture, anyway.”

“Well not now this minute,” he said. “After breakfast.  Before the flowers are gone.  The petals are already beginning to fall.”

And that was true.  When I looked down at the walkway, it was already covered with a blanket of fallen white petals.  So I took pictures.  Even though it was cloudy.  Enough pictures to satisfy the most demanding of men.

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The most demanding of men was happy for about two minutes.  “Great pictures,” he said. “I wonder what kind of tree it is.”

He was asking me?

We referred the question to Google. Could Google identify a briefly white-flowering tree native to New Jersey? Google knew too much.  It told us (with pictures) that “our” tree might be a Cleveland Pear  (because the leaves of that tree, like ours, turn red in the fall) or a Natchez Crepe (because the blossoms look like our blossoms). But the Natchez is described as blooming for 110 days a year, which is definitely not the case chez nous.  And the Cleveland Pear is not described as having a very short blooming season. Moreover, our tree does not  produce pears, not even small misshapen ones. And that was just the first page.

“Why don’t we ask my blog readers?” I suggested.  “Many seem to have comprehensive knowledge of plant life.  Someone is sure to know.”

Bill thought that might be a good idea. Hence this post.

Then the sun came out.  Which may make determining what kind of tree we have an easier question to answer.  Or perhaps not.  It does make the flowers prettier to look at.

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You may have already noticed: when I begin doing something, I find it hard to stop. If it’s not too many words, it’s too many pictures. (But how do I choose which to keep and which to toss?)

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Look all you like.  And if you know what you’re looking at — meaning what in the world is the name of this tree — please tell. Bill would love to know too.

AUTUMN LEAVES

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“Aren’t they beautiful!” says Bill.  “They’re just beginning to turn color.”

The autumn leaves of New England are indeed celebrated for their glorious yellows, oranges and reds during the week or two in early October when they flame into brilliant color before falling to the ground to be swept up, bagged and disappear. (Or else to disintegrate into mulch in heavily forested preserves.) I hear enterprising touring companies in England even organize one-week trips abroad to come look.  (Although in my view that’s a waste of a cross-Atlantic journey.  How long can you look?)

We live three states south of Vermont and New Hampshire, where most of the publicized beauty takes place. So what happens here happens several weeks later.  But Bill’s right. (Even though his enthusiasm for the beauty of it is perhaps a trifle premature.)  It’s beginning.  Now that he’s brought my attention to it, I notice it whenever I step out the door:

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It’s also across the way, where our neighbors live, and where it’s even more pronounced:

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Should I be glad we”re soon to have a feast for the eyes whenever we raise them upward?  Or is there something melancholy in this last gorgeously defiant display before the fading of the year?

I suppose it depends on where you stand on life’s arc and how steady your footing.  Now that I’m 83 and — yes, let’s be candid — on life’s downward chronological slope, I can’t help feeling somewhat sad when I see all this dying beauty. And also can’t help hoping I’ll still be around to see it (however sad my feelings) when it returns again and again.

So here’s to years and years more autumn leaves!  Bring them on in all their splendor!  I’m ready.

Autumn on McComb Road

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART III

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Spanish saints of long ago.

[In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. “Inexpensive” was key for me — which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn’t all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn’t.]

Among my discoveries was that one of the joys of travel can be eating.  This insight did not come from the breakfasts and dinners at the Gran Via included in the program price, which sustained (perhaps over-sustained) life but could hardly be described as “joys.”  However, in our second week of Salamanca togetherness, R. and I broke step with the others for lunch at a “real” restaurant in a part of the city not considered “Old.” There we found that food as we know it did indeed exist in Spain, together with spotless tablecloths, cloth napkins, crystal wine glasses, leather bound menus and a young waitress clad in sleeveless pastel linen eager to practice her charmingly shy but correct English on us  — the daughter of the proprietor, home for the summer from college in the states.  The bill, by our standards, was high. But worth every penny.

After we had paid it, carefully doling out equal numbers of pesos from each of our wallets, came the interesting question of who was to keep the “factura.”  I want to say that like small schoolgirls playing hooky from the tour, we played one potato, two potato or eeny miney moe for it.  But I seem to recall that in fact R. ceded it to me because of the two of us I was the virgin traveler.  Here it is, all fancy-framed and still hanging in my kitchen:

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Souvenir of my first European restaurant meal in forty years.

I see we had wine, salad, perfectly cooked salmon and black coffee. The bread on the bill came, and was charged for, without our ordering it, but neither of us was then savvy enough to send it back when it appeared, not knowing we would have to pay.  Oh well.

Our second hooky experience was more adventurous.  We cut out for a whole day — missing, I think, an educational visit to a convent or two — not specifically for a restaurant meal, but to see the Prado in Madrid. (How could anyone come to Spain for twelve days and not see the Prado?) But it goes without saying  we weren’t going back to Salamanca after the museum without first experiencing gastronomical Madrid.

It was a round trip by train, tickets acquired at the train station by means of R.’s then relatively primitive Spanish.  (She’s far more fluent today.) A woman who taught first grade in a New York City public school wanted to come with us.  Here we are after two or three hours of wandering from Velasquez rooms to Goya rooms to the museum bathrooms. Some people take photographs in museums despite pictograms everywhere showing cameras with big X’s on them, but I was good and didn’t.  So all you get of this wonderful museum, through the kind ministrations of a passerby, is the three of us outside, beneath Velasquez himself:

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NYC public school teacher (left), R. (center), me (right) and Velasquez (on high).

Afterwards, we had a short stroll through a park nearby:

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Madrid. Near the Prado.

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Madrid park.

And then — a Madrid meal!  Bookish ladies, we took a taxi to what  the Frommer guidebook identified as Hemingway’s favorite restaurant and ordered, with reckless disregard for gastrointestinal consequences, what the elderly waiter, who spoke some English, identified as Hemingway’s favorite dinner.  Was he really old enough to know? Was this kitchen lore? Piggyback hearsay?  It was roast pork, with many trimmings. (We were all three ethnically Jewish, but had left observance far behind long before crossing the entryway.) It was heavy on the plate, heavy on the fork and later heavy on the stomach, especially in the Spanish heat.  Also very very expensive.  Maybe they got away with charging extra because of the Hemingway benediction? But it was a cozy little place, and fun while we chose and chewed, and I’d probably go again if I were still there, If only to try to find my own favorite dinner on the  menu.

As I acknowledged in the first of these three posts, the Hotel Gran Via — despite its single star (not to be confused with a Michelin star) — did try.  One night, they even provided musical entertainment to enhance their tasteless and boring dinner.  I tend to disfavor non-spontaneous simulations of native culture, trimmed and flavored for tourists.  But then I thought: the musicians were at least working, which might not have been the case for them every day.  And many of our program’s twenty-eight participants seemed to enjoy the hokey performance.  So who was I to carp? I took a picture instead:

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After-dinner song at the Gran Via: employed musicians, gratified patrons.

Another afternoon we were taken to a sort of bullfight, with paella afterwards. I say “sort of” bullfight because this bull had had much experience, which is not supposed to happen, and had been trotted out and put through some paces for our benefit.  Neither matador not bull died at the end, and no one was even injured.  (There were no picadors.)

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Showing tourists how the cape stuff is done.

But the paella was pretty good.  Not quite as good as one Bill and I ate in Barcelona twelve or thirteen years later, but maybe third most memorable meal of the trip, so I’m not complaining.

Another discovery was how much I disliked being endlessly bused from place to place to cover all the “must see” historic artifacts and “must see” cathedrals in the area, with too-long stops on dusty highways for impromptu lectures and photo ops. The lectures could have been delivered on the bus, if it had been equipped with sound equipment.  And souvenir books contain better pictures, taken by professional photographers, than you can ever take yourself.

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“Professor Nena” lecturing about aqueduct with great seriousness during bus stop on way to Segovia cathedral. Lecture was followed by photo op.

I also became depressed by all the unrelieved religious suffering depicted in Spanish art.

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Excruciating suffering in Segovia cathedral. Note the skulls below the crucified Christ.

I preferred Segovia’s window boxes:

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Cheering view from the bus.

Sitting in Segovia’s Plaza Major, where we ate lunch-time sandwiches, was also a pleasant experience: we watched whoever walked by while waiting for more busing. We were going on to Alcazar, summer palace for Ferdinand and Isabella.

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Alcazar: the royal summer palace. It’s above the plain, so presumably somewhat cooler than below. But it wasn’t really cool inside, believe me, despite the thick stone walls. And we weren’t wearing layers of fifteenth-century royal trappings!

What I really wanted to see was how life was being lived in 1990 by people still alive. Which is probably why I took this picture on our next day’s busing to the province’s largest city:

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You can see where my mind was at.

But by the time we got through the Sculpture museum in Vallodolid, and hurried past the Palacio de Justicia (which would have been interesting to me, but no dice), it began to rain.  So this is all I can show you of Vallodolid cathedral.  Does it look much different than other cathedrals of the period?  I am not the one to ask.

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Vallodolid cathedral in the rain.

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Vallodolid’s Plaza Major. Same (unanticipated) rain as above. We didn’t have umbrellas.

Here’s a happy picture.  On the next day’s bus trip, to Avila, our pit stop for toilet needs was (oh joy!) an up-to-date modern bathroom.  You can see that R., like me, thought it a welcome event.  At last!

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What a great john!

Our destination that day was the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila:

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Inside the cloisters of the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila.

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Leaving the St. Thomas monastery.

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Edible souvenirs of Avila’s Santa Teresa. I didn’t buy any.

When we reached the Avila cathedral, I was cathedral-ed out.  But I couldn’t resist these three near the door:

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Detail: Avila Cathedral.

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A photo op of something outside Avila. I photographed the photographers. Oh, there is R. in the purple t-shirt, tirelessly taking pictures. I wonder if she still has them, and if so, whether she ever looks at them.

Our last bus trip was to:

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Graffiti even here, in Spain. How did they manage to spray paint so high?

First stop: the Hostal de San Marcos, Leon. This is the most luxurious of all the stops for religious pilgrims. We weren’t supposed to photograph the interior, but this time I was not a well-behaved tourist:

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Illicit shot of interior of Hostal de San Marcos, Leon.

And then it was back to Salamanca for our farewell dinner at the Gran Via.  They tried to make it festive.  We actually had fresh oranges for dessert.  Here is Pedro — yes, I finally found his picture! — peeling an orange decoratively:

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Pedro — waiter, maitre d’, général factotum. He did his best. We tipped him generously. I’m glad I found his picture after all.

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But of all the photographs of this first trip [and I’ve spared you more than half of them], the ones I still like best — together with the two from behind the village of La Alberca in the last post — are these, taken in front of Avila cathedral.  I couldn’t decide which I preferred, so I enlarged and framed them both. They hang over the upright piano in our small dining room where I can look at them every evening while we have supper.  The children so intent on their game and oblivious to the foreign lady with the little camera are now adults in their thirties.  But in my awkward pictures they remain forever at play with a ball, caught in a moment before they grow up and raise their eyes to the saints above them.

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Avila cathedral, 1990.

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Avila Cathedral, 1990.

Well, what’s past is past. Time to put the album away and get going with making dinner.

HOUSE CAT WITH PRIVILEGES

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A RARE TREAT.

Sasha and Sophie are house cats.  They are not allowed to go out.  Not without me, that is.

Unfortunately, going out with me involves wearing a harness with a leash attached.  Cats don’t take kindly to being harnessed, and Sophie — the younger of the two — still will not submit to it.  Out come her claws as she struggles, and back into the drawer goes her harness. Another time perhaps.  But Sasha, now five years old, has learned the rare appearance of the harness means something exceptionally good is going to happen. She will get to explore the great Outdoors.

Our cats are not entirely housebound.  There’s a wire-fenced deck off the kitchen, from which they can smell foliage, hear birdcalls, spy on squirrels scampering through the underbrush in the rear of the condo.  But there’s no grass under the paws, no growing leaves to munch, no trees on which to scrape the claws.  And Sasha certainly appreciates the difference.

We don’t go out together often, Sasha and I.  Not in winter, when it’s too cold for both of us.  Not in summer, when it’s too hot for me, since I can’t crawl underneath the low spreading leaves of a grove of trees where it’s cool and shady.  But there’s still spring and fall.

However, walking a cat is not like walking a dog.  You go where the cat wants to go,  not vice-versa.  It takes a long time, it’s tedious, and sometimes it’s hard to get her back in the house when I’ve had enough.  Not that we go very far.  Usually she just slowly circles the five-unit structure in which our condo is located, investigating every ground planting in the front, and making a few careful forays into the uncleared and dedicated forest land behind.

Exciting though it may be for her, it’s boring for me.  Especially as there’s really nowhere to sit down while she explores.  But she makes me feel so guilty when I go out without her — and don’t think she doesn’t try to second guess which door I’ll be using so as to run out with me when I leave — that once in a while I carve out an hour of the afternoon just for her.

Sasha Getting Her Greens.

SASHA GETTING HER GREENS.

Then she can poke around to her heart’s content. Although it makes Bill nervous when he sees me do it, I do let go of the leash if she ventures where I can’t or don’t care to follow.  The harness is red, so it’s easy to spot, even at a distance.  And she doesn’t go far. When I call, she even waits for me to catch up. That way I have both hands free to try to take her picture.  Or should I say pictures? I have to snap six for every one that’s usable.

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WHEN I LET GO OF THE LEASH, THE HARNESS TWISTS AROUND. BUT SASHA DOESN’T SEEM TO MIND.

Occasionally, someone walks by pushing a baby carriage and does a second take at the sight of a cat on a leash.  But if Sasha’s off the leash, they do a second take at the sight of me, lounging against a tree or sitting on a rock in a residential neighborhood as if I had nothing else to do.

But I am doing something.  I’m enjoying her appreciation of the big wide world.

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 WE CAN ALWAYS TELL OUR TWO CATS APART BY SASHA’S GOLDEN EYES.

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APPARENTLY A CAR JUST PASSED BY. THAT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. (ACCORDING TO SASHA.)

Eventually, though, even she gets tired.  When we pass the deck chair on the front walk, she settles down for a rest.  Soon I’ll be able to pick her up without her fussing, and carry her into the house.

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ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

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 LOVING LOOKS MAKE EVEN THE THREE ITCHY BUG BITES I COLLECTED OUT BACK WORTH WHILE.

 

NEW FAMILY IN TOWN

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They move away fast when you take out a camera.

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But it’s spring. And you know where a young goose’s fancy turns in spring.

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Maybe if we hurry around to the other side of the pond, we’ll be able to get a better view.

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Ah! That’s better!

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There used to be two. Now there are eight:  mama, papa and six little goslings.

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I wish I could show you the six little balls of fluff huddled near their mama more clearly.

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But the parents are protective; they just don’t come close to shore with their goslings.

And even the miraculous iPhone 5s has its limits.

As do I.

But if you click on a photo to open it, you’ll get a better view.

(Don’t say I didn’t try.)