Our Newest Family Member

Now that that the holidays are over and the tree is down, the ornaments are put away, the parties are fond memories and the first snow of the winter has arrived — it’s time to settle into the New Year.

Mr. D and I celebrated the start of 2015 by arranging to get a new family member, a five-month-old pup named Devil on Horseback, “Dev” for short.

Dev2

pic by Julie at Temora.net

Like my beloved Sydney (who passed away at a ripe old age in March) and his younger admirer Addie (who is now a senior citizen herself) Dev is an Australian terrier. Known for their indefatigability, intelligence and large personality in a small body, Aussies aren’t that common in the U.S. In fact, we are going to Wisconsin to pick him up next week, which in many ways is absolutely crazy!

Sometimes, when contemplating the logistics –and the cost– of acquiring Dev, I ask myself why we didn’t just adopt a shelter dog in need of a good home. We did try. Despite being smitten every time I checked my Facebook feed and saw an adorable face begging for a second chance, I remained faithful to a few criteria:

1) We knew we wanted a terrier, on the small side, to insure portability,  to prevent exuberant and potentially damaging body slams, as we are “fit but over fifty” dog parents, and to be good companions for our “grandpuppies,” both of whom are under 20 lbs.

2) We have two cats, which we do not desire to become prey.

3) We didn’t want to deal with a dog with aggression issues toward other dogs, strangers or small children, whether from insecurity, former abuse/neglect or lack of training.

4) With one dog already, we couldn’t adopt a bonded pair or a dog who needed to be an “only.”

A friend suggested fostering, and Mr. D and I thought about it, but decided that the potential stress on our cats Jackson and Lizzie was not acceptable.

These restrictions really narrowed the field. After finding and inquiring about three good prospects only to find them quickly snapped up, we realized that the kind of dogs we could provide a good home for were the least likely to need us.

I wish I could be the new mom for a pit bull mix or an anxious older poodle, but I’m just not the right fit at this point in my life. Despite my guilt each time I think about buying a purebred dog instead of rescuing a mutt, I have to be honest about my circumstances and my priorities.

So, it’s off to Muskego, Wisconsin we go to pick up our boy from our wonderful breeder Julie at Temora Australian Terriers. We’ve been like new parents picking out the right travel bag for the only direct flight, which happens to be on Southwest Airlines (we settled on the large Sturdibag after research on this wonderful site).

No doubt there will be many more pictures to follow as Mr. D and I train this pup together! Wish us luck, and Happy New Year to all of you, dog lovers or not!

Grape Harvesting in Tuscany

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Next to Borgo Pignano, the estate where we are staying, is a limited production “boutique” winery owned by relatives of our yoga teacher. We had a once in a lifetime experience yesterday, harvesting grapes and learning about the production process at MonteRosola Winery.

The weather was beautiful, with a crisp Volterra sky, just enough heat and sun to warm the bones. I could not just understand but feel how important the quality of this sunlight is to the vines and the grapes they bear. Row upon row of specific clones graced a hillside, dripping with clusters of deep purple fruit ready to be harvested.

A family operation, two tow-headed preschoolers skedaddled about, clippers in hand, at one with the Tuscan earth and ready to participate in the harvest. Two enormous labradors padded about, pausing to nuzzle each other or sniff out ripe olives to lap up from the chalky soil. A robotic lawn mower meandered about the lawn in front of the residence while our host explained to us our task and the process of turning grapes into award winning red wines.

I am no oenophile. In fact, I cannot drink red wine due to its tannins and oak barrel aging. But picking and then eating three varieties of organic grapes — cabernet, shiraz, and the local Italian specialty, sangiovese — even I could discern a clear difference in taste and even feel in the mouth depending upon the variety.

We were tasked with cutting and then perusing sangiovese grapes, looking especially for mold, but also being attentive to overripe, already fermenting grapes. These were to be selected out, tossed on the ground and allowed to return to the soil from whence they came. Several hours later the baskets of grapes we had selected would be put through a destemmer, sorted on a small conveyor belt to select out any remaining imperfect specimens, and then crushed, flowing into gigantic oak barrels where they would be tended like delicate hothouse flowers, with minute temperature adjustments and coddling, but with no additives or artificial acceleration of fermentation permitted.

Because the winery operates completely organically, rose bushes at the end of each row signal the presence of insect pests, which are treated with concentrated chamomile. Grape clusters often had spiders within, and the occasional yellow jacket buzzed drunkenly about, feasting on the fallen overripe  grapes.

It will be several years before the grapes we picked will end up in bottles in some lucky person’s wine cellar, but many more years than that before this unforgettable experience fades from my memory.

You can read more about MonteRosola here. 

I’m Going to Live Like a Dog … Or a Goose

Every morning between 6:30 and 7:00 a passel of geese squawk noisily as they fly over my bedroom, presumably commuting from their riverbank home on the Potomac to the corporate campuses and golf courses where they congregate during the workday. For twenty-one of the last twenty-three September morns their honking has signaled that it is time to begin my own trek to work. Like them, I returned to Great Falls at dusk, only to repeat the pattern at the break of the next day. We are all creatures of routine after all.

But now I have retired, and if I am not already up and out of bed their beating wings and loud exhortations to stay in formation and flap harder suggest that it is time to get some coffee and my iPad in preparation for a leisurely catch up on the world’s doings overnight. I no longer need to find and work to keep my place in the human version of the goose pecking order made visible in their aerial V. Geese can live between ten and thirty years depending upon their circumstances, so perhaps some of the same birds are flying over me as were young when I moved in. I wonder, can geese retire, and what happens to them if they do? Do they get to stay back at the water’s edge with the goose version of social security, meals on wings and senior discounts at the marsh grass feeding area? Are they left in charge of the goslings or just abandoned after they can no longer contribute to the working age flock?

Questions like these about aging, longevity and vibrancy have hung over me like a shroud these last few weeks as I inch closer to the dreaded birthday that signifies that I am officially “old.” I don’t feel old, and most people are kind enough to say that I don’t look my age. I don’t really want to be young; I’m “comfortable in my own skin,” as they say, even if it does sag. But being classified as “old” puts things in perspective and forces me to consider big, philosophical questions that are hard. How much time do I have left, and what do I want to do with it? What is the right balance between living now and providing for a possibly lengthy dotage? What is the definition of “quality of life?” How will it change as I age?

Ever since my beloved terrier Sydney passed in March and his younger, devoted (if bratty) companion Addie had her own bout with cancer in May, I have become acutely aware that time is relative. I never used to think about a day as a unit of time in a dog’s life, busy and unconsciously living, selfishly perhaps, according to my own sense of what sunrise to sunrise meant in the 80 or so years that I might be expected to inhabit this earth. I know that Addie and Sydney have been loved, cared for and treated with patience in their infirmity — even if I was not always as sensitive as I should have been to the meaning of each day of their so abbreviated lives. Now I understand that a day in a dog’s life really does equal a week in mine, and I need to make each one count. Retirement has allowed me to insure that Addie has an adventure nearly every day, that I don’t waste whatever remains of her time at my side.

I’m trying to extrapolate this epiphany to my own activities. Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned physician and public health advocate so associated with the Affordable Care Act, has a riveting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic explaining in detail why he wishes to die at age 75. Now 57 and in good health, he makes a compelling case for letting nature take its course after 75 rather than prolonging what is usually a debilitated and diminished endgame. He points out that while each of us think we might be one of the outliers who remains vital and productive until well into our 90s, the reality is that most of us will spend our old age in increasing physical and cognitive incapacity. Therefore, for him, setting a deadline by which he will have accomplished his life goals and will thereafter refuse all but palliative care is liberating rather than depressing. He will live as long as nature or God intends, but without benefit of modern medicine after age 75, except for the alleviation of pain.

When I think about this stance toward mortality as someone just hours from my 65th birthday, I come to the conclusion that I should live life like a dog, imagining each day as more precious than I have heretofore and assuming my lifespan to be just ten more years — Emanuel’s age 75 and the average lifespan of a canine. I am in excellent health and spirit and I love deadlines, so thinking that the next decade is all that I have focuses my mind and banishes indecision about which pleasures to partake of and which adventures to seek. Like Emanuel, I am not advocating hedonism in the meantime — that “We are all going to die anyway so why not eat that extra cupcake” mentality. I will continue to live a healthy lifestyle, not just because it gives me pleasure to be fit, but as an act of social responsibility. I won’t squander my limited but nonetheless ample resources on consumerism, but I will have the kitchen cabinets repainted because they need a refresh and because it will make me even happier to walk into my kitchen in the morning. I won’t get a facelift or a tummy tuck, but I will continue to spend a hefty sum on my hair. I’m giving my thirteen-year-old still perfectly working car to my daughter and buying a brand new one, because, well, because she needs one and I want one. I’ll spend the next ten years traveling as much as I possibly can, while I still can. I want to live to see grandchildren and to enjoy watching my daughters become mothers. I want to read, and write and cook to my heart’s content, but I am sick to death of cleaning and as soon as I can afford it I will pay someone else to do most of it for me. Money is really only useful when it buys survival, security or experiences, and while the temptation is to hoard it for the for the first two, with my ten year perspective and my newfound dog brain I want to use it for living, not staving off dying.

Geese and dogs have much to teach. Both are extremely loyal, the birds mating for life and the canines closely bonded to their pack, whether human or other. Both have strong nurturing tendencies in each gender, sharing the care of young (remember that old adage “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”). Both like to work and love to play, being social creatures with the ability and intelligence to learn and to participate in complex interactions. As far as we know, despite their ability to feel jealousy, affection, sorrow and many other so-called “human” emotions, neither geese nor dogs have a dread of their own mortality. They can plan, but not for IRAs or 401(k)s or tax deductions. They do not live in the future. Whether my remaining lifespan matches that of a dog or a goose, I will try to be more like them, staying mindful of the now, of the ever-present “here” and enjoying the company of others. In my experience, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and I do love a wild goose chase! Wish me luck.

Today is National Dog Day (I know, every dog has his day…).

Life without our four-legged canine friends would be infinitely less. Dogs live in the moment, but they also never forget their people. When family members return home, even after an absence of several years, dogs can go absolutely bat shit — as all of those returning veteran YouTube videos have shown us. Dogs don’t care whether we meet our specie’s standards of beauty (even if some of us hold them to their breed standard). Dogs have a range of emotions, including jealousy, as a recent New York Times article affirmed, although anyone with more than one pet already knows that. Dogs can be the shoehorn that gets us off the couch and out the door to enjoy the natural world, rain or shine. They can be the vehicles for meeting new people or talking to people we already know as we stroll through the neighborhood. In tough times, they can be the glue that holds us together, not just as individuals but as a family — snuggling us, kissing us, or just sharing those wise knowing stares that say, “I know you are hurting, but I’m here for you.” They can make us laugh at their antics, cry at their passing, bark at their misbehavior, marvel at their bravery and stoicism, wish for their simple joy in life. They have inspired poets for centuries. While cat videos have become an Internet meme, it is our canine friends who most teach us to be human through the poignant brevity of their time with us, the depth of our mutual respect and affection, and the knowledge of mortality that our sometimes brief togetherness bestows on us, if not them.

Three of my favorite poems follow. They are sad, but capture so well what is so special about the canine/human bond. Moral of the story: live each day trying to be as wise and good as your dog.

 Dog’s Death

 She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog.

                                                            John Updike

 

Another Dog’s Death

 For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

 John Updike

 

A Dog Has Died

By Pablo Neruda
Translated By Alfred Yankauer

My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.

Some day I’ll join him right there,
but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat,
his bad manners and his cold nose,
and I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
where my dog waits for my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

Ai, I’ll not speak of sadness here on earth,
of having lost a companion
who was never servile.
His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine
withholding its authority,
was the friendship of a star, aloof,
with no more intimacy than was called for,
with no exaggerations:
he never climbed all over my clothes
filling me full of his hair or his mange,
he never rubbed up against my knee
like other dogs obsessed with sex.

No, my dog used to gaze at me,
paying me the attention I need,
the attention required
to make a vain person like me understand
that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he’d keep on gazing at me
with a look that reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Ai, how many times have I envied his tail
as we walked together on the shores of the sea
in the lonely winter of Isla Negra
where the wintering birds filled the sky
and my hairy dog was jumping about
full of the voltage of the sea’s movement:
my wandering dog, sniffing away
with his golden tail held high,
face to face with the ocean’s spray.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.

There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

So now he’s gone and I buried him,
and that’s all there is to it.

RIP Sydney, my sweet furever boy.

Summer Bounty : Saucetravaganza

Preparing gallons of tomato sauce may not save the world, but it is certainly helping to calm my unease at a world seemingly gone awry. Watching the news this past week has been disheartening.  I suppose famine, disease or sectarian/ethnic/religious or just plain political conflict is always with us, but this summer the world seems to be particularly chaotic. Sometimes, doing things the old school way is a means of creating a tiny island of security and stability in an otherwise challenging sea. Freezing tomato sauce was one of my summer goals, and I’m happy to say that the carriage house freezer is now housing the results of yesterday’s marathon. Here are the steps I followed, improvising after doing a bit of online research: First, I acquired the following :

25 pounds ripe organic paste tomatoes, washed, chopped into one inch dice with hard membrane but not skin or seeds removed (I like chunky sauce so I don’t bother to skin or seed)

chopped tomatoes

4 large organic white onions and as many cloves of fresh garlic as you wish, chopped

chopped organic onions and garlicFresh Italian parsley, fresh basil, fresh rosemary, fresh oregano (washed, dried and chopped)

organic Italian parsley and  basil

Any good red wine, salt and pepper

Freezer containers with no toxic chemicals

Next, I sauteed the onions and garlic in olive oil until just translucent. I then worked in four batches with one batch just tomatoes cooked until tender with no seasoning to serve as diced tomatoes in future recipes:

voila!!The other three batches cooked for a much longer time. After a strong covered boil on medium heat for about ten minutes or so, the tomatoes had cooked down to about 2/3 of their original volume, but the sauce was very watery.

I took the lid off the pot, turned down the heat to a simmer, added all of the chopped herbs (except the parsley, which went in at the very end to preserve its greenness) a bay leaf, salt and pepper to taste, and about a cup of a good red wine per batch. Stirring every ten minutes or so, I let the sauce cook down until it was less than half the volume of the original diced tomatoes. On a very slow simmer, this took about two hours.

Finished Sauce

(If I had been making just one batch I might have used my slow cooker, but doing so many batches required using the stove.) Finally, I tasted and corrected the seasonings, added the parsley and allowed the sauce to cool, giving an occasional stir. Once everything was cool, I ladled the sauce into washed and dried ziploc plastic containers, leaving space at the top of about a half an inch.  I did the research, and these containers (and the bags) contain no evil chemicals or contaminants so they won’t leach bad stuff into my luscious sauce. I refrigerated the containers until chilled and then transferred them to the freezer. All in all, the process (including picking up the tomatoes at my CSA drop off point) was pretty much an all day affair. Judging from the way Mr. D and I gobbled our spaghetti dinner last night, it was worth it! Up next …. freezing a giant batch of corn. I may not be able to fix the world, but I can darn well fix some delicious meals in a sustainable and rewarding way!!

I’m a Pacifist Waging War

No negotiating. No ceasefire. No UN observers thank you very much.  For nearly twenty years I have been locked in a struggle over territory. A variety of invaders have questioned my border’s right to exist. I’m talking mugwort, Canadian goldenrod, switch grass, pineapple mint.

Do you know these terrorists? They should be on the FBI most wanted list for destruction of perfectly lovely perennial beds, meadows and prairies. The CIA should be listening for their underground activity instead of spying on the Senate. Where are the embedded journalists wearing combat gear? Where is the Tea Party outrage over the breach of this border by juvenile invasives? Where is the open carry crowd when I need them? (Shopping at Target no doubt).

I have, at various times, double dug this inherited perennial bed to a depth of two feet, sprayed with RoundUp, covered the bed with layers of cardboard and mulch, used fabric weed blocker and tried to drown the invaders with my tears. (OK, I had other people do the horrible task of double digging up rhizomes as thick as your thumbs and I couldn’t generate enough salty tears to kill one dandelion). Nothing has worked.

Oh, I’ll get a year or two of optimism during which I invest in many new plants and delude myself into thinking that this time, for sure, I will have a manageable plot. And then, a vacation at the wrong time, or an unusual weather spell in the winter (or the spring or the summer or the fall) and BOOM. The next dastardly marauder takes hold.

Some have just been dormant — like naughty two year olds waiting for my inattention — ready to stage a full-scale tantrum in the midst of my shocked and awed blooming plants of choice. Some have been seeded by pooping birds dropping them, like cluster bombs, between the lilies. Some have been smuggled in by perfectly innocent looking topsoil, mulch or expensive nursery plants in pots. And, fool that I was, I planted ONE tiny pineapple mint plant two decades ago.

I’m going to tackle this thing full on (again). I’ve cut the offensive plants down to two or three inch stalks. If it ever rains again I will dig up as many rhizomes as I can. I will use glysophate on whatever has the temerity to sprout between now and the end of September. Then, before I go away on vacation and thus giving the little bastards time to regroup, I will once again put down three layers of cardboard covered by three inches of mulch.

Next spring I will not make the mistake of thinking the war won. I will rinse and repeat the steps mentioned above and NOT PLANT ANYTHING VALUABLE ALL SUMMER IN THAT BED.

And if, by the end of 2015 the problem isn’t solved, I will take out the entire $#%*ing bed and put down sod. Which, by the way, might be the only patch of actual grass that I have in my “lawn” since I refuse to use weed and feed, or preen, or any other chemicals on my turf, vegetable beds, woodland garden or the perennial beds near my front gate. I garden organically, pull endless weeds with my own two hands, and try to be a good person. Now you can see why I’m a little bit alarmed by the aggression that this situation brings out in me. But my garden is my baby, and no unwanted, allergy inducing, greedy territorial usurper puts baby in a corner!

I’m Seeing Red

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It all started a week ago when Mr. D and I went to Capitol Hill to visit an awesome private gallery of Americana political memorabilia with his West Coast cousins. I fell in love with the brilliant red door, the lipstick colored apartment building framed by flaming red flowering shrubs, the Tasha Tudor like urban garden complete with Corgi and little old woman weeding.  Then, on Saturday we went to Hains Point and walked most of the length of the East Potomac Park.  The most spectacular day of the summer yielded wonderful views of planes landing and departing over the Potomac as we lay on our backs in the grass.  Families fished, picnicked and frolicked along the waterfront, but not in numbers or decibels sufficient to dispel the sense that we were vacationing in some far off coastal area. Glimpses of red caught my eye there, too.

Then, this morning, my CSA notified me that I could preorder 25 pounds of Roma tomatoes for canning or freezing next week. While Mr. D and I are happily tending our own tomato plants, most of which are cherries and slicers, we welcome the volume that we can get of these organic, beautiful Romas.

Those of you who follow my blog may remember that putting up tomatoes and tomato sauce is on the to do list for this summer.  So, onto the interwebs I went to find the perfect recipes.  I’m a little bit afraid of poisoning Mr. D by canning incorrectly, and I have a freezer in the carriage house that has plenty of room, so freezing it will be.  With some due diligence I’ve discovered that Ziploc bags do not contain BPA or other evil things so that will be the preferred containment system.

I’m going to use this recipe or a close variant depending upon my whim, possibly slow cooked in my slow cooker. I’ll do a post documenting my efforts next week!

Cultivation

It’s time to order the new raised beds to reinstate the vegetable patch that was leveled to make room for my daughter’s garden wedding dance floor. Here is what I have in mind, white cedar raised, stacked mortise and tenon  beds from The Farmstead:

You can watch a YouTube video here showing how easy it will be to put together (in under five minutes per layer no less).

I bought packets of organic seeds at Home Depot yesterday, but will have to supplement with market packs when the time comes as I haven’t started early enough for some things which should already be seedlings in the greenhouse out back (currently a bit sad and in need of a good cleaning and some caulk).

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultivation lately.  The word itself has so many connotations — of civility and refinement, of nurture, of down in the dirt effort, of looking for approval and/or goodwill.  In my yoga practice, cultivation means finding strength in patience, a letting go of ego balanced by a will to push onward toward what yogis refer to as “the edge.”  In the garden, cultivation means a loosening of the soil to enhance the growing process and allow plants to stretch out their roots to obtain stability and moisture. In my teaching, cultivation means carefully stretching the budding intellects in my classroom toward making connections that transcend the literal, that express individuality of thought and argumentation.  In my writing, cultivation means tending language, weeding out the unnecessary and cross-pollinating my real and imaginative experiences.

I’ve been reading and thinking about creativity and where it comes from. There too, there is a balance between connecting disparate ideas in novel ways while yet remaining grounded in a utilitarian universe so as not just to be merely quirky or so much an inhabitant of a private mental universe as to be beyond comprehension.   Recent studies of creativity have found that the left brain and the right brain must cooperate, with neither becoming too dominant, for true innovation to occur.  Grey matter must not be overdeveloped; white matter must be plentiful enough to fend off the bossy grey.

In a wonderful post about the creative process, brainpickings.org writes “Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction.” The enemy of this collision, of this cross-pollination, is oddly enough, effort. A piece by Tony Schwatrz in the opinion section of the New York Times this morning rightly suggested that our modern, workaholic culture actually makes us less productive than does 90 minute bouts of effort interspersed with periods of restoration and rejuvenation.

Workplaces that encourage people to work at their own pace, to take chances, to think rather than to do, not only have higher retention rates but higher productivity and greater innovation.  It is the mindless busy work engendered by being tethered to our electronics — the hard work of not just being but looking constantly “busy” — that saps the creative juices and produces nothing more than conformity and burnout. 

Some of my best ideas have come in the garden.  The hours pass with little notice.  My left brain is satisfied by the methodical work of weeding, planting, accomplishing a tangible result.  My right brain is free to wander, literally to smell the flowers and to roam through the pathways of my experience, cultivating the garden of my imagination.