Friday, December 30, 2011

george and the labrador gang

i must say there is nothing quite like a house full of people and dogs at christmas. this year we made a new dog friend named george—george belongs to megan—and james brought along harper and we all nestled under one roof for several cozy, relaxing days after christmas; george and his crew traveled by car from texas to maine. together with lille and lizzi, the dogs provided great entertainment, a touch of drama, and lots of laughter. [click on the images to enlarge.]

george is a 20 pound who-the-heck-knows-what-kind of dog breed. on boxing day we went to denny's house and took a long walk in the beautiful snow-covered forest with 3 of our 4 dogs in residence plus ollie, luc and addie (we were sad that the only one of the lab siblings not present was montana)—6 humans, 6 dogs. george was seriously outnumbered by the labrador gang, but being surrounded by the big dogs didn't phase him in the least.

the labrador gang

georgie porgie puddin' pie

guess who led the pack of labradors most of the time? george. guess who had the littlest, stumpiest, sturdiest, most reliable legs that hastily carried him once again to the front of the troop of humans and canines if he happened to lag behind for a second to sniff the forest's tantalizing smells and lift a hind leg to mark the spot? george.

and his rather murky past? george is a scrappy survivor from the mean streets of texas city. one day around his fourth year of life, abandoned and unwanted, he was scooped up from those streets by the dog-catcher (a.k.a. the canine control officer) and placed on doggie death row where the date he was due to be euthanized was quickly approaching. but then—phew.... just in time—in walks megan, and it could be said that on the day megan arrived george's life finally began in ernest.

george is truly a great little dog—calm, quiet (unlike some of the labs!), well-behaved, and oh-so-loyal.

all's well that ends well, georgie boy.

and so we go on to celebrate a brand new year for you and for the rest of us, george.

happy new year, my dears!

image credit: the labrador gang. christina wnek

Thursday, December 29, 2011

advanced photography in one lesson

she asked me to help her with part of a photography assignment she was working on at college. what do i have to do? i asked.

just be yourself, she answered, and started clicking away.

no, no, no! how can you take pictures with the house such a mess. let me clean up first.

i'm not taking pictures of the house. i'm taking pictures of you. besides, who cares.....

but it's all gonna be there in the background, all the clutter.

or something like that. i don't remember everything, but i remember enough. she said what she needed to do was to grab reality, to show what's honestly—painfully—real, to examine life the way it actually presents itself—my unwashed hair, the overflowing ashtrays, the piles of unfolded laundry, dishes and pans on the counter smothered with encrustations from last night's dinner, the stacks of books on the sofa, coffee table, floor—everywhere those all-important books!—read, unread or partially read, the must-read-before-i-die! books, books in yet-to-be-opened boxes from amazon, borrowed books highly recommended by friends—this was reality, according to her.

while she was busily catching the light, capturing the mood, seeing with her mind, allowing life to be be be exactly as it was in the moment, i was the subject she followed around and had to keep instructing to stop posing, act natural, just keep doing what you're doing.

i was the subject with a toothbrush in my mouth, an old sweater pulled over my head, the car keys jingling in my pocket, my backside out the door.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

just reach into the hat....

on the evening of christmas day we have a tradition: our family always gets together with my husband's mother and his sister's family for a meal and more (the and more part is the lively part—i'll get to it in a second). the tradition started way back when all our children were infants, and even though our families have grown to include the husbands, wives and children of the original children, several of whom live far away, we still manage to gather for dinner at one of our houses.

hopefully the tradition will continue on in some fashion in the scattered pieces of the clan in the years to come—but who knows. at the very least, perhaps a few old stories from christmases past might always be recounted at christmastime. for example: remember the year grandma got the silky black thong in the yankee swap? and all the young women were trying to trade like crazy (translation: kill) to get it? and a certain young lady got them and brought them with her on her honeymoon the following summer?

oh yeah, that's the and more part of our tradition—the yankee swap, every year like clockwork.

and don't anyone try to change that tradition, don't even attempt to voice an opinion indicating that maybe since the family is growing and spreading out over so many states maybe we ought to consider discontinuing the yankee swap. if you dare suggest such a thing, i give you fair warning: some members of the family will bite your head off and make you feel so ashamed for suggesting a change in tradition that you will just wanna crawl in a hole and die. i won't mention their names on the internet—*cough*christina, *cough*alex, *cough*hannah—but these people know who they are and what they are—yankee swap junkies.

in addition to stuffing our faces with food and drink, we always play our official christmas game and that game oftentimes leads to other (unofficial) games. (that's a subject for another post.)

you know the game of yankee swap: everyone brings an inexpensive, wrapped gift (under $25). we all pick a number out of a hat (we often have almost 20 people) and go in order to take turns to choose a present of our choice, either a wrapped gift from under the tree or one of the gifts that someone has already opened. (that's right, you heard me correctly—we steal people's gifts on christmas.) the highest numbers are obviously the best (more choices), the lowest numbers, the worst.

sounds like a nice game, huh? well, you've obviously never taken part in our swap (anyone is welcome. you're invited; come on over—just bring a wrapped goodie with you.)

you see, our swap is a highly competitive version of yankee swap—a cutthroat, killer yankee swap. all in the wonderful spirit of christmas, right?

every year there are always the gifts that turn out to be rare and sought after. real economics is involved here (and you thought this was just a game for dummies)—you know, high demand, low supply kind of stuff. people will practically tear you apart from limb to limb to get these gifts.

i've already mentioned the lusty black thong. another year there was also a lovely string of highly desired F*R*A*G*I*L*E hanging leg lamps for the christmas tree (rent a christmas story). and once a chubby orange goldfish in a stunning bowl (the fish died a few days later), a bunch of tickets for a car wash, a board game called the simpsons (oh.that.andrew), a set of screwdrivers, and small, battery operated helicopters (those were seriously fun).

aren't all of these things worth fighting over on christmas day?

it's exhausting.

but we are sure to have a fun time and a wonderful christmas, even with all the bruises, scratches, and torn clothing.

on that note, merry christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


outdoors these red berries, which cling tenaciously to their branches long into winter, are little spots of festive cheer, shiny ornamental clusters in an otherwise dull gray and brown landscape.

moose, deer, rabbits, other small mammals, and birds eat winterberry. also known as fever bush, the plant was used for its medicinal properties by native americans. the berries are (supposedly) slightly toxic to humans, but if they're harvested after the first frost their toxicity is reduced (supposedly).

i placed some of the winterberry stems i got in a vase. i also made a centerpiece for the dining table with short and long needled pine and winterberry. jeez louise, i really hope no one is poisoned by my holiday decorations—everyone will just have to be on the lookout for any stray berries which may have fallen onto their plates!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

over the brenner pass

after strolling around bolzano and saying hello and good-bye to the 5000-year-old iceman (his story is interesting: he died—perhaps was murdered?—in the alps not too far west from brenner and is remarkably well preserved in the south tyrol museum of archeology) we left our rental car in bolzano, took the train and headed out of the dolomites and into the kitzbuhel alps toward st. johann in tyrol.

our railway journey was uneventful—we shared our compartment with an elderly italian couple who spent most of their time in the dining car—but the scenery was lively—absolutely picture book pretty. as the train wound through the mountains i thought i would be able to capture some images of the tall, pointed firs lining the mountainsides and the fairy tale villages scattered in the valleys below. (some of the evergreens were not even ever green—they had turned a sunny shade of yellow; the sprinkling of huge, intermixed green and yellow "christmas" trees was an unusual sight.) what was spread out beyond the windows looked like a festive christmastime tableau, even without any snow on the ground. but the train's windows were filthy so, sadly, no pictures from the train.

we stayed in a quaint, old austrian inn on the post road.

there was a small shop in the village which had a window display of traditional austrian folk costumes for sale. very pretty, but where on earth would i ever wear one of these dresses except perhaps to a costume party?

here is a chalet i saw as i walked along a lake in the tyrol. with a little snow added to the scene the house and setting would have looked very christmasy. i could live in a once-upon-a-time, happily-ever-after storybook cottage like this one.....

couldn't you?

Monday, December 19, 2011

a christmas tree surprise

every family has their own holiday and christmas traditions, and searching for and selecting that "perfect" tree is certainly an important aspect of getting ready for celebrating the season.

ed and i pick out our christmas tree together (when our kids were little they helped, too), but we don't have a tradition as far as where we get the tree. in past years we've purchased trees from the freeport rotary club or our local plant nursery, or we have found trees on our land or ed's mother's land in harpswell.

the bought trees are always tree farm lush and perfectly formed with dense fingers of needles and a thick coat of branches. the wild trees are more of the charlie brown variety—thin, scraggly, lots of space between the branches (ornaments actually hang better and are more visible on these evergreens), sometimes a gaping hole on the spot where a branch should have grown but couldn't because the tree didn't get enough light or nutrients or something.

personally i have a fondness for imperfect, unwanted wild christmas trees, but we often end up buying  a tree because it's easier—we can be awfully lazy—if we don't feel like going all the way up to harpswell and searching for one, cutting it down and dragging it out of the woods; or if we don't have any trees that are the right size in our woods in freeport.

one year i sent ed out alone to get a tree (i believe that was the first and only time he's gone by himself). i don't remember why i didn't go—i was either sick or busy doing something else. he promptly came home with a fine 10 foot tree he purchased from a church fund raiser.

as we put up the tree together—me making sure it was straight in the stand and ed tightening it securely—i looked up and noticed something on a branch in the interior of the tree. when i leaned in closer i discovered a lovely, well-shaped, 5 inch bird's nest. ed had unknowingly bought a christmas tree with a real bird's nest hidden in it! i kept the nest in the tree and put in a little stone bird. since then, when i see abandoned bird's nests or ones which have fallen on the ground, i save them and place the nests in the christmas tree, a small bird nestled in each.

i've never in my life, either before that day or after, found another christmas tree that carried the marvelous surprise of a beautiful nest tucked in its branches.

i wonder, have you?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

icy reflection

the black truck is parked under the trees in the driveway. not much going on unless you want to count the pine needles that are falling like snow, covering the asphalt, the dry crackly leaves, the green (!) grass, the rotting plant stalks, the truck's hood. pinecones are falling, too—vast, sticky crowds of them—their pitchy scent as fresh and powerful as the pine needles.

more pinecones are gathering on the ground than i have seen on this patch of land in 30 years. every few days i rake dozens into the woods off the driveway. does this mean a harsh winter is on its way? are pinecones significant harbingers of what's coming, sent down from the old white pines before the blizzards, the howling northeasters get here, to tell us to watch out, stock up, get out our woolies, hibernate in front of a good wood fire? or are they simply the tree's surplus, shed as new cones form?

still i keep thinking why so many this year?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

dusty pages

how do i compose this note to you?

i stare down into my scalding cup of tea. steam dampens my cheeks, my lashes. my vision becomes misty. i run the back of my hand over my eyes.

absent-mindedly i flip through the pages of a dusty, old book as if looking for.....what? a guide, a how-to manual, a roadmap, some definitive answer to the way the letters of the alphabet should be arranged to reach you?

the pages are yellow. the spine is cracked. my hands shake. a spot appears on the paper and is absorbed. i am lost. the words i was shaping shift and slink like phantasms back onto the night.

Monday, December 12, 2011

the visit

buy some flowers or a bottle of wine to bring to the lady of the house and we're off.....

here we go visiting again. 'tis the season for visiting. visiting is something we do all year but during the holidays a lot more visiting seems to take place with dinners, parties and just plain casual dropping by—real old-time mainers refer to this as a door-yard-call—to say a quick hello.

not so long ago—before the invention of electricity —people didn't have many relatively inexpensive leisure activities to participate in during their spare time, so preparations for afternoon or evening visits were elaborate and taken very seriously. people left calling cards, made detailed plans, filled up their social calendars. the visit was a significant event in daily life.

i got thinking about what was once the fine art of visiting and how important it is to spend time with people. in the 21st century we don't concern ourselves too much about that. (why would anyone categorize visiting a fine art?) perhaps we don't think too much about anything we do anymore because we have so much going on, so many distractions and demands on our spare time—health clubs, shopping centers, computers, cell phones, ipods, radio, t.v.—that no one gives serious thought to any of it. we simply do what we want to do.

nevertheless, in a world with so many choices, visiting should, perhaps, be elevated in status to a fine art once again. and what about the conversation, that back and forth, give and take? it ought to be a fine art, too. often people find it difficult to focus on their friends and the conversation going on around them because they're distracted by talking on their cell phone, fiddling with apps, playing games or texting. the gadget gets the undivided attention, not the human beings, and conversation suffers.

you could argue that getting together on skype or any video chat is good enough to count as visiting time. i would agree—to some degree it does—especially when there's no other way to get together. yet there's really no substitute for being in the presence of actual, three-dimensional people, surrounding yourself with family and friends.

taking the time to call on people and to talk to them, to be immersed in the company of people we are fond of, at the holidays and beyond, is to participate in a kind of social art—a rather civilized art—the truly fine art of the visit.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

riding with the contessa

italy. october 2011.

somewhere in the october distance
in a patchwork of nourished rows and turning vines
a reflection curves, spins
off metal, penetrates my eye
comes at me, alighting from the misty golden
heaven of hills—olive, basil, rosemary, cypress—as if
i am staring at a some kind of priceless painting
capturing a wild, refractive, and bold medieval light
shining past centuries and on and on and i shield my eyes with my hand
and i am alive and pressed with a hefty gladness
a gift, an unexpected prize that comes with the day
this welcome day, how much there is of it
in the moments before drumming hoofbeats west of bologna
near casina announce a cloud of warriors i can feel in my chest
riding, riding toward me away from sky and falling sun.
i see her at once fearlessly leading the ranks of men—
matilda of canossa, la gran contessa—clad in armor
her face riven with pride and lust for the chase
strands of her long brown hair lifting, unfurling
like airy banners waving triumphantly
with each rise and fall of her horse's hooves.
i smell the beasts' sharp sweet sweat
hot breath sucked in and out of power machines
hundreds weighted with rippling muscles
all knees and heels, hocks and fetlocks
gouging the fields to seek an enemy—to repeat the humbling
of an emperor who had groveled penitent in the snow—
soldiers bearing swords and daggers protect the quattro castelli
the apennine stronghold, the golden road that curves through
the mountain pass to matilda's doorstep.
block the teuton onslaught! through the rush of bodies
the spraying saliva and blood of men and animals
i hear cheers in the twilight—witness another october....1092—
glorious shouts of victory fly up through the vineyards—
henryVI is beaten!
fling him back across the alps
from whence he came!
i stand alone
instant silence dropped
on this primordial bed compacted with these fallen bones
planted in soughing rest, deep and light—wistful, wistful—
powdering the earth, oh soft, soft.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

a stroll through an outdoor market

oh the incredible colors and smells—large hanging bunches of bright red chili peppers and fresh papery garlic. pomegranates, oranges, lemons, limes, grapes, flowers, roasting chestnuts. fresh breads and pastries and an incredible selection of local cheeses. (i'm getting hungry as i write this.)

i could have strolled back and forth in bolzano's market all afternoon, up the via goethe and over to the piazza delle erbe off the piazza walther—you wonderful passeggiata, i'm glad you turned up and i could savor you once again.

the market in bolzano (northern italy near the austrian border) is marvelous and filled with all the right foods. the people who live in bolzano are bi-lingual and speak perfect italian and german—trilingual if you count their own local german-ish dialect which i could not understand. (every mountain valley and village speaks the official national language plus a gazillion different mishmash dialects —it can get audibly confusing.) the culture is a mix of italian and tyrolean. i loved the fact that the restaurant menus were in italian and german and not english.

i finally (!) managed to find a place not crawling with americans.

on that early november afternoon we had a big lunch and ended up feeling so full we decided to skip going to dinner and instead bought cheese, bread and fruit at the market. later that evening when we had finished our simple "dinner for two" we went out and enjoyed a glass of wine. i believe it was as close to a perfect day as you can have.

and the people watching was great, although it was a little too chilly to sit outdoors.

Monday, December 5, 2011

the sweetness of doing nothing

there is this thing the italians call il dolce far niente. translation: the sweetness of doing nothing.

these people really know how to live.

il dolce far niente has nothing to do with laziness. quite the contrary, it has everything to do living life deeply and well—with slowing down and savoring life, lingering with the little things, getting out and drinking in the magic of the moment.

try it. do like the italians do. stroll through a garden, stand there, look around, touch the plants, the flowers, the statues, the water. smell them. visit an art gallery, a museum. meander through an open air market and along the colonnades of an outdoor shopping arcade, and then up to a piazza.

when you get there relax at a table for two, drink some nice local italian wine or a cappuccino. enjoy the view. watch the people go by (watch the world go by!) and then find a restaurant, order an antipasto and a primo (healthy whole foods) and eat slowly, as if your life depended on slow not fast.

there is another italian word related to this view of life—the passeggiata or the promenade. the idea behind this word is simple. everyone—young, old, couples, entire families—should get outdoors on weekends, stroll along, and take in their surroundings. italians wander and observe, chat and gossip, flirt and window shop. and eat.

the nice part about living life with gusto is that you don't have to travel to italy or anywhere far away to do it, and it can cost next to nothing. you can enjoy this outlook on life in your own area, neighborhood, town.

i find this manner of absorbing life, of living it to its fullest at a slower pace, of taking time for visits, passeggiatas and eating food—with sundays reserved as a day off for most shopkeepers—to be wonderful, civilized and healthy, unlike the wild wild west of american indoor shopping malls and fast food/junk food emporiums that are rarely closed and where the shopping rush is insane and sometimes dangerous (i'm thinking of the barbaric attitude surrounding the christmas season where mobs assemble outside stores which open at midnight after thanksgiving).

is the point of living, the way to find happiness and fulfillment in life, to be derived from a continuous, mad, addicted shopping orgy?

this crazy kind of hurry up culture is virtually unknown in italian society (or the rest of europe for that matter) and it used to be unknown here—italy's slower lifestyle is the way life used to be in the states. what happened? can we ever get back to what is real and slow down, focus on people, families, meaningful dialogue, and enjoy the simple things in life, instead of squandering existence on our plastic, artificial, unhealthy, fast, fast, fast shop-til-ya-drop mentality?