Not the sort to carry on

Porthos copy

After it ended, I saw the tragedy. It isn’t death, it’s loss. So let me tell you this story.

I had a marvelous round soft black cat that understood me, as is given to few, especially cross-species between human and feline. When my mother entered the mean stage of Hospice, when things come from a beloved mouth that were never meant to, I passed across the yard from her bedroom in the next house, into our place, and blind to all details, I walked one foot at a time into the bedroom. There on the bed a small black blot of a cat rolled over, fixed me with his pure green eyes and said “Oh, wow!”

It broke me out of a bad place. I bent over his black fur self and knew I had my ‘oh wow’ cat.

That was Porthos. He saw me through fraught times, miseries, nightmares of legal complications (that actually never matured, thank God,) family misunderstandings,  parent troubles, coping, coping, coping, and somehow I could whisper all into his dense plush and feel he absorbed how I felt. Understood, and cared that I cared. Feral from the start, he would let me hold him until it became too much, and with an apologetic purr he’d walk away,  look back, smiling a cat smile, torn by the demands of instinct and affection.

In a year of tending both parents, mother in Hospice at home, and father with multiple brain hemorrhages, I damaged my back catching my father or trying to, whenever he fell, (and he fell a lot.) When my back was hurting I’d get up five times in the night to go to the bathroom or walk about the house, trying to ease the pain with motion. There Porthos would be, my tugboat, bumping my ankle with his round black head in the dark, making sure I’d not get lost, that I’d find my way back to a bed that some nights felt more like a rack than comfort. 

Porthos never took time off. I couldn’t ease my way from under the covers without hearing the solid plop of his strong little body hitting the floor so he could guide me yet again between the bathroom and the bed, or from the main rooms for a limping walk, back to the bed again. I could slip out without my husband knowing, but Porthos, no.

He loved me and I, him, of that I have no doubt. But he also loved Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A little orange tabby with golden eyes, WWW had more health problems than he had limbs. But from the first week, Porthos adored him. He would sit and look over little Willy with his features softened into adoration, a besotted lover gazing at his own golden kitten. However sick WWW might be, Porthos forgave the snarls and hisses, the siren growls and swats, the smell, and simply stepped aside so that Willy could eat the food from Porthos’ bowl, bent his black head to wash Willy’s defiant neck. They wrestled and chased and tussled over the years, and Porthos never hurt Willy, however hard Willie hit or bit him. I’d pass by their shared chair with a pause to stroke the smooth conmingled furs, gold and coal black. I found the thought passing in my head that if Willie died from one of his elaborate genetic complications, what would we do to comfort Porthos? But I had the wrong end of the problem.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One shocking week one summer, and Porthos was gone, from a polycystic liver disorder, genetic in origin, previously undiagnosed. Some of us had called him fat— but I always corrected it to ‘burly’.  The night before he died, he surprised me by coming far up the bed and taking my hand in both his paws. We slept like that several hours, or at least I did, until my back made me get up and walk around. Porthos returned to a pile of soft things we’d arranged on the floor for him, but he didn’t guide me to and fro. When I settled  down again, it was on the floor by him, with my hand close to him, but he didn’t hold my hand again. I think he was too uncomfortable, though he purred a little. Those black morning hours passed slowly. 

When we came back from the vet’s  I curled up my ten-year-old black cat in a soft-lined basket and placed him on the bed for hours, so Willie could see and smell and understand that Porthos was dead. Willie came and washed Porthos’ ears. Then I buried my black blot cat by the studio door and splashed some champagne on the grave. Porthos loved champagne every time I’d given him a drop off the tip of my finger, pink tongue flicking avidly, his eyes slitted in pleasure at the taste.

About this same time our daughter headed off to grad school in Arizona. This may seem unconnected, but I’ll connect it later.

Willie seemed lost, disordered, after Porthos went. He purred anxiously, followed us about. We decided —a new cat. Kitsune, an older flame and snow shelter cat came to us. Then two kittens. None of them were the cat Willie wanted. Not acceptable housemates, much less anything more intimate. 

At Christmas our daughter returned. Willie greeted her with astonishing clear pleasure, his head lifted, his face happy as only cats’ faces can express happiness. You know how when you smile, your eyes narrow and uplift at the outside corners? Cats do that also. Willie moved with light anticipation, joy, his orange striped body eager. We hadn’t realized how depressed he was until we watched him dance about and jump blithely up into her lap, looking about as though expecting something. 

Perhaps three hours later, Willie crashed into a deeper despondency than ever. All we can imagine, and we admit it’s imagination, was that he associated our daughter’s departure with Porthos going, and thought her return meant Porthos’ return. When he found it wasn’t so, he fell back into his depression. However you look at it, whatever your interpretation, Willie-cat never rose again to that level of happiness, no matter what attentions we might provide.

Yesterday, September 20th, 2018, we had to let Willie go. The best guess is he had a cancer, causing cachexia and a myriad of other symptoms. The vet came to the house and Willie went to his final sleep upon my lap. We buried him by Porthos near the studio and I poured a salute of champagne to them both. 

I realized a few hours after the last shovelful of dirt, the full sense of tragedy. It isn’t that Willie died, it’s that he never recovered from his loss. Three years and a month after losing Porthos, now he’s gone. My dream is that he’s back with his gentle black beloved again, loved as no one but his Porthos ever could love him, tangling in wrestling joy with his black best beloved friend. Batting and rolling about in mock combat.

 Animals. Where after all, do we come from? What does it tell us that they may share with us deep strains of what we humans name as most noble and high? Affection, selflessness, love, loyalty. I keep hearing Phillip Phillips  singing “Gone, Gone, Gone…” I heard it when I was losing Porthos, and how clearly I heard it yesterday.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oozQ4yV__Vw    Not my usual music, but it fits these cat friends.                     

 Where do you suppose we should go from here, to become our best selves under this night sky? In a time of stress, public disloyalty and strife, of threat and domination praised as though it were righteousness, can we back off from our food bowls to let a younger weaker friend eat? Can we tend to a sick friend, even when he’s dirty and rude and stinks? Can we wait and love, even in absence being faithful? Give me reason to believe.

Porthos and www copy

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under blog, cats, experiences, family history, friends

Traveling Memories

It appears that my high school class will have an unofficial meeting at a venue in Florida this fall. I ended up being involved with parts of the planning, so that does seem to obligate me to actually show up.

I’ve already booked myself a room, which if you knew how many oddities I indulge in about travel, would profoundly impress you. Funny for someone who grew up traveling! But planning makes me anxious. I find it easiest to plunge off on a whim– it used to always be a big question if I would get a visa to go to Nigeria to visit my parents, and often I would buy a ticket and go within forty eight hours of receiving my passport back from the Embassy. Stuffing my cheap new-bought luggage with basic supplies like bottles of peanut butter and plastic-bagged toothpaste, seed packets, colored chalk, dried Chinese mushrooms for my mother, and BOOKS, I’d make every square inch count.

I particularly remember a night in the Lagos airport back in the days when it had open walls to the outdoors. Geckos and major cockroaches with dancing troupes of moths passed through, and military with Schmeissers and riding crops coming in every two or three hours to beat sleeping ‘vagrants’ out of the place. Never bothered the whites or the people in good clothing, I think that was how they decided if you were a legitimate traveller or not. But I recall having John McPhee’s Oranges, and a fat new biography of Samuel Johnson to keep me awake for the night. Rarely have I been so thirsty, before or since.

The next morning the airport woke up around four or five AM, small birds opening a seething noisy chorus in the trees around the building. I found a man who knew where he could get me a soda, and I found an unofficial porter to help lug my suitcase over to the domestic flights section. I said the suitcase was cheap, didn’t I. Well, the handle tore off. No options for fixing it, so he loaded it onto his head and we marched on.

I had a ticket, but because of a late arrival the night before, had missed my flight from Lagos to Enugu. So I got in line with my ticket and waited in what shortly became a seething throng. I was denied every flight through the day, despite my best manners and firmest insistence on my right to be seated. I think they may have realized that I was not going to give a bribe, and was possibly becoming an embarrassment, so they finally gave me a boarding ticket for the last flight, after the dark had come down with the early suddenness it does on the Equator. It’s interesting that I have no recollection of managing to get any meals in that long day, but I did get a few sodas.

Such a relief to be seated on that flight– I didn’t believe it until I fastened the belt. Another forty miles of driving lay ahead to reach my parents’ home in Nsukka after I would land. By this point, since none of my efforts to telegram ahead seemed to have worked, and I was a day and more late, I knew no one would be waiting for me in Enugu.  When our little Fokker began an abrupt descent to Enugu, the gentleman ahead of me down the aisle on the window seat began to chant “Pray God, a safe landing, pray God a safe landing,” which he kept up until our plane touched down in the darkness. It was a safe landing and we all cheered, probably inspired by the man up the aisle.

I walked off the plane down the roll-up steps with the Nigerian night holding me in its heavy warm fist, and all I felt was triumph. Of course, that soon shifted to the tension of the assault of taxi drivers and a bidding war to get a ride. That I didn’t have enough money in my pocket, cast no shadow on my bargaining. I had no conscience left about such details, and knew that my parents, if I reached them, would be happy to pay.  Soon we were lurching through the night traffic of Enugu. I made a little conversation, but the driving was challenging, involving goats and pedestrians and other vehicles, so I soon subsided, figuring it prudent. Once out on the highway, we sped along pretty well, but it seemed an interminable ride. I’m guessing now it wasn’t much over an hour and a quarter. I recall talking a lot with the driver about times over ten years ago in Nigeria and my wonder at being back now, in 1976.

I didn’t have a street address for my parents’ house, but my driver knew a solution.  He could go to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka postal center, because they would know.

I went in with him to the green-white lit building. I was shocked to see  the white metal clock on the wall said it was no later than five minutes of nine– we’d barely made it before closing.  I felt like it must be midnight. The neatly dressed man at the counter made me feel my messiness, my unbrushed hair, my rumpled days’ old clothing, the coating of dried sweat. At first all I saw was his shaking head, but he went to consult with an associate, coming back at a trot. Yes, now he had the name right, he could give us the address.

We circled around in the taxi and back a part of the way we had come, before we drove up into a little driveway.

“We are here,” my taxi driver said.

“Wait. I need money to pay you.”

Was it truly the right place? I went to the front door. I knocked, looking and seeing no one through the glass panes,  I opened the door. There was my mother seated at the dining room table under the big paper moon lantern that held the electric bulb, working on a pile of papers. A small vase of roses and gardenia stood near. She looked up.

“Hi, Robin,” she said. “I thought you might be coming, one of these days soon.”

2 Comments

Filed under blog, family history

Afterwards

IMG_1310

What a week that was; Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018.

In the mornings I tried to reach the room of Matt Pallamary’s Phantastic Fiction before it started. In that session, I knew I’d hear marvels from  writers, each reading about five pages of a work. Novels, flash fiction, short stories, all welcome. Winged creatures and monsters, science and magic, humans in new worlds, with challenges ranging from apocalypse to love. Wonderful material, in so many different voices. I’d half-close my eyes to be transported to another place and time. After each one read would come the entirely different exercise of hearing a critique offered by the group . As I’ve said before, I try to write my comments so that I don’t hold up the process of storytelling, and also because it can be a good thing to put thoughts onto paper and let the author have them to take home and consider at a more relaxed time.

In the afternoons I went to a couple of different sessions, but ended up repeatedly where I was last year, in Monte Schulz’s exploration of voice and style. He has a love of reading which infects, (if you’re not already a hopeless case.) Eclectic, creative reading, not the passive act they drummed into you in public school. Listening to how, considering why and which– leaning in close, to better understand how to hone techniques into a perfect set of tools for powerful individual expression. Moving from craft to art.

Tucked in every day were talks by authors, agents and publishers, a rich array to choose from so long as you could stay awake, because none of us got enough sleep! Friends thronged in all the hallways and out on the steps of the conference center. The main cantina room had transformed into a book store with the registration desk at one side. Imagine clusters of people debating, and happy voices, with exclamations and laughter.

At nine thirty, after the evening talk, I had a choice of pirate sessions. I say a choice, but it was the hardest thing of all, deciding where to be. I wanted to be in both. In fact I had happy fantasies about creating clones of myself who could allow me to attend everything through each day and night and not have to make a choice. Do you suppose though, that the sleep debt would be multiplied as well? Some mornings we didn’t leave the rooms until after two.

You never know what you’ll hear in a pirate session. I had a friend read for me. (You sometimes hear errors and problems in pacing you’d never pick up any other way when someone else reads your work.) One of my short stories entitled Orphans,  told in close third person point of view of a beetle from a very special tribe of Coleoptera, received keen valuable critique. Then we heard a play, showing Shakespearean lovers in a nursing home. Towards the end, a mass murderer revealed secrets.

The first time you attend a conference like this you often feel exposed, concerned that you will not satisfy the requirements, or if you are another type, you will expect people to fall down and worship when they hear the superb prose that you and only you can create. Both are delusional. What a group like this is doing, is trying to make each and every writer better, and to that purpose and labor there is no end.

Listening to fragments of stories, searching for useful input to share, trying to articulate cogently, still have my brain thrumming. Being in such company, with generosity the wine of our shared time, has me yet inebriated.  Now you understand why I picked the photo of my little cat to head this blog post.

2 Comments

Filed under blog, education, friends, writing

Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018

IMG_1382

Feel like speed dating? The agents above will be at next week’s conference.

Here it comes again, ’round the corner of summer, and I’m wading through stories on my computer I hope my friends might like, or help me make better, pulling excerpts from a mystery novel that I want to test on critical minds, feeling nervous and definitely behind. Didn’t do my homework in time. Happens every year that I attend.

Last year was possibly the hardest, because I’d not been for nearly ten years, and I felt really out of step. Would anyone even remember me enough to share a drink? But it didn’t matter, I’ve written before, that at an event like this you go through a few days and it all slides back into place, the personal anxiety changes to pride that you are part of this larger effort, and you feel a joy in every person who has dared to come and share their work, expose their weaknesses as writers as well as their strengths. It’s never about me. It is always about us.

We come to learn and also to teach. If you attend, your job isn’t merely to have your stuff read so you can gain ideas about how to hone your own craft. You need to step up and offer your  ideas and insights about your fellow writers’ work. What worked for you, what didn’t and how might it be tweaked to communicate better, more powerfully, more clearly.

Sometimes the critique session is so crowded that the best gift you can give other writers is to listen carefully and jot down notes to hand over afterwards, because if you try to hold forth and explain all your reactions to their work out loud, you’ll hold up the process. An advantage of notes is also that if you write your critique, the writer gets to keep your commentary and think it over at leisure, maybe even when at home. When I’ve just read a piece of my own, my ears and nerves are jangling after, and it’s hard to hear every word offered in critique, however kind. And yes, writers and instructors, at least at this conference, are kind. The very definition of constructive criticism starts and ends with thoughtful honesty.

So, I’m planning to engage in a transforming experience, yet again, and my hopes are high. Six days of reading writing, talking, critique, jokes bad and good, laughter and tears. But not much sleep. I told you before about the pirate sessions…not much sleep.

Starts on Sunday in Santa Barbara. See you there?

3 Comments

Filed under blog, education, experiences, writing

Lazy Bread

Hob

How many of you watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’? I do, I’ve been known to binge-watch it, trying to second-guess each move and enjoying myself a great deal. However, I don’t cook like a chemist or physicist, though I believe in the science of baking. I cook with my hands and the touch of my fingers. 

Bread is a deep pleasure, and I haven’t used a recipe since… I can’t recall. I throw it together– it’s a lazy bread that I make! The dough can be kept in the fridge for when you want it, for about a week.

There are in my mind five basic ingredients. Gently warm water, dry yeast, salt, olive oil and flour. To this I frequently add dollops of honey and several tablespoons of psyllium husk to up the fiber content and the moistness. The flour content is variable, since I’m fond of mixed grains. Dark rye flour at about an eighth to a quarter of the total amount of flour is nice. With that I often will use about half whole wheat flour, preferably Indian Attah, but almost anything will do. The last quarter is white bread flour. All purpose flour is fine, though given a choice I will head for a bread flour with its extra gluten. 

I have a Hobart mixer named ‘Hob’, since none of the non-commercial mixers have the mixing moxie to stand up to the heavy labor of bread making. Actually let’s be honest, I have burned out a succession of Kitchenaids on cakes and cookies (I knew better than to even attempt kneading bread with a Kitchenaid.) I really do try to take care of my machines, never to ‘horse’ them or force them. But even the big Kitchenaid is not a professional piece of equipment, in my opinion. Hobart is the source of the Kitchenaid but the interior housing of the Kitchenaid motor is liable to cracking.

For those of you who have been reading this blog, you know I’m serious about hosting large parties, and working with massive amounts of ingredients. Wedding cakes for a hundred fifty guests, that sort of thing. The Hobart is up to my lifestyle. Before I had one, all yeast doughs were mixed and kneaded by hand. This makes for good shoulder muscles, by the way. I can mix a dough in fifteen minutes without my Hob.

I throw in about two to three cups of warm water (not hot, or it will kill the yeast,) a scant tablespoon of yeast, 3/4 teaspoons of sea salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, optional dollop of honey, five cups of flour and put the kneading hook on low until it’s all mixed. No, I don’t bother to check my yeast– I cook so often that I know already that my yeast is alive!

Look at the dough, touch it with a dry finger tip. If it clings to your skin and doesn’t rub off easily, slowly add another cup of flour, any kind of flour, while running the machine or kneading by hand. If doing this by hand, have it out on your counter for the kneading process.. If still sticky, add more flour and knead more But if there is an elastic resilience to it and it doesn’t adhere longingly to your finger, unplug your mixer, take off the dough hook and turn the bowl on to whatever surface you use for kneading, if you’re not already there. Keep your flour duster close to hand. The dough should be a little sticky, but it should be possible to rub off your fingers. Knead it and slap it on the counter for fun, adding a little flour when it starts to come apart and cling. Five minutes, possibly eight. Let rest under a clean tea towel.

Now in my kitchen when I had the counter re-tiled ten years ago, I chose square tiles, big enough to roll out a whole pie crust on or knead bread dough on. Most kitchen designers make the error of planning little tiles, four by fours, for example, for their counters. If you can stop them from doing that to your kitchen, do it. Big tiles mean far less upkeep, a pleasantly simple aesthetic and no horrid bits of grout grunge in your kneaded doughs.

bread dough

poked bread dough focused

You can let the dough proof (or rise) for an hour or up to two, under the tea towel before you shape it. But if time presses, just form your loaf without bothering with that extra wait. The bread texture will be coarser, but it will still taste good. Leave your shaped loaf in its greased pan to rise between an hour and two and when it retains the impression of a finger poke, bake it in a preheated oven at 375 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit until it sounds hollow when rapped with a knuckle. I find I get my best rise when I roll the dough. So make a flattened rectangle once you have kneaded your dough, and roll it up firmly before fitting it into your baking  pan to rise, covered with a tea towel.

If you do the slower method and let the dough rise for an hour or so before progressing to the shaping,  knead it down before your shaping of the loaf. When shaped, let the loaf rise until the dough retains the indentation of a poking finger. Then bake, and test doneness by rapping on the crust as above.

Let the loaf sit about five to ten minutes before turning it out of its greased pan; it should come out easily.

bread in square pan

If you want a fast lunch, try pan bread. Take a double fistful of dough and pat it into a rough circle, to fit the bottom of a middle sized cast iron pan.. Heat that pan, well-oiled, on the stovetop  and when hot, place the dough in the pan. (Sometimes to be dramatic, I throw it. That’s fun.) Turn the burner down to the low setting and cover with any lid that fits. Leave to rise and cook in this improvised oven for about ten to fifteen minutes or until the upper surface is no longer sticky. Then flip it over and continue to cook five to ten minutes more, until lightly browned on the bottom. Eat hot with butter, or with sauteed vinegared red peppers and onions with fresh goat cheese or pickled artichoke hearts or… whatever you like. I’ve been known to sit down with peanut butter and this hot bread for a fast lunch. It tastes different from oven baked bread, and while it can be a little sticky inside, or dense, it has a lovely immediacy and nuttiness.

Want a particularly spongy soft interior texture in your bread? Take the water from boiling potatoes and use some in your warm water when you make the dough. That will give you a softer resilient crumb in the final loaf. Love a soft crust surface? Rub butter over or spray the crust with oil when you take it baked, from the oven.

And yes, before you ask, you can stretch and roll this dough out to make a pizza if you like, but if you’re doing that, crank your oven to 500 degrees, do a full pre-heat, don’t overload the crust with sauce and additions, and do use a perforated round pan for a crisper crust… I recommend caramelized onions and gorgonzola with a crumble of walnuts and rosemary across the surface.

Enjoy!

2 Comments

Filed under blog, cooking tools, food, recipies, Uncategorized

At Los Banos

Two Trees Los Banos copy

Every time I have come here, the wind was blowing, and never seemed to stop. Shining oatgrass, under an open sky. In the night the gray shining grain moved in waves, like some moonlit sea. It made me think of a Ray Bradbury story I read long ago of a house set among wide fields where however long you stared, no other features but grass and sky were seen. The men inside that house floating in the grass were isolated like a crew upon a ship, the illusion of sailing unending.

We have camped near the slope I painted in the picture above, several times. An owl frequented the place, you could hear the calls over the susurration of the grass. Never when we were there did we see more than a few other folk, all seemed content to give a token wave from the distance and let the grass blades speak.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog, camping, plein air

Lamb Satay

satay cropt

Mistakes happen. I thought I had a chunk of pork in hand when I took it out of the freezer, but when I checked how it was thawing, guess what, lamb! A fine piece of boneless lamb. So the play of flavors I’d been envisioning for dinner had to shift, and I pulled out an old favorite recipe for satay that has evolved with me over decades. I cut the lamb into 1/2 by 1 inch chunks, deleting what fat there was, and marinated it for six hours in this mixture, which reads as spicy to hot, depending on whether you lean on the peppers, which I do.

———————————————

2 Tb ground coriander seed

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 teaspoons hot chili oil

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

3 cloves of garlic well chopped

4 Tablespoons soy sauce

3 Tablespoons lime or lemon juice

1 Tablespoon to 2 Tablespoons red onion

————————————————

Whir all of the above in a chopper, blender or Cuisinart, using about half to flavor the lamb. Place vegetables such as raw button mushrooms, chunks of raw onion, pieces of red or green pepper, and whole cherry tomatoes in the remaining half of the mixture.

Light grill and bring up to heat while stringing the meat and all the vegetables except the tomatoes on skewers. Brush lightly with olive oil. As you will see in the photo, I place the finished meat and vegetable skewers inside a grilling basket to limit the loss of pieces that might get lost and try to immolate themselves in the flames.

Place the tomatoes in another grill basket.

Grill meat and vegetable skewers until done to your preference, putting the tomatoes on late in the sequence so they don’t get overdone. A trick I use is to undercook the lamb skewers, and hold them in the over at about 250 Fahrenheit while finishing the tomatoes. Serve with rice or other vegetables as it pleases you.

3 Comments

Filed under blog, cooking tools, food, recipies