Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I really do want to tell you about Schwartz, who for all the world looks like a stand-in for Sugar, although his profile is far less Siamese and far more elfin in nature. But to tell the story of Schwartz, I must first digress and tell the story of a snake named Basil.


But this is supposed to be the story of Schwartz, my current cat, who replaced the old cats a few months after they died (at the ages of 19 and 20). One was a crabby, foul-breathed ornery old child- and dog-hating bit of white nastiness that lived for many years under my bed and almost only came out to eat and poop. He had a yellow eye and a blue eye, and it only made him scarier. When you looked at him in the dark, you could only see the white ness of his face, but no ears and no eyes. His head looked like a skull. He had no tolerance whatsoever of sneezing, by anyone for any reason. If you tried to find him there was only one place: under my bed. I think his hair is still there today. When he didn’t hiss in your face with this catty death-breath, he would growl. He was a terrible, unhappy animal and we never, ever knew why.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Sugar lived to the age of 18. My mother called me the morning she had to put him to sleep, pretending to ask permission. By that time, I was in graduate school, and I lived in another state and had two cats of my own. I was very sad that day, and pointed out to anyone who cared to hear that I’d had the cat almost as long as I’d had my younger brother.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


You should know that Francis was named for his resemblance to Frances the badger from the children’s book “A Birthday for Frances.” Unlike a badger, our Francis had a glorious striped fluffy tail that seemed at least 2 ½ inches too long. He was beautiful, but has also very stupid and walked into walls and ran from sounds no one else heard. He died before he was ever really an adult, succumbing to one of those terrible cat illnesses with a fancy name no child would ever want to remember.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Sugar out-lived his brother by many years, and also outlived other cat companions Sesame and Francis. Francis was the kitten we kept from Sesame’s litter, and he was kept because we thought he wouldn’t live. Sesame was rescued from someone or someplace; no doubt my mother would know, but she took that and so many other details with her when she died April 13, 2004. Sesame was wild, that I remember, and would not agree to doll clothes or carrying. Soon enough she turned out to be pregnant (do we call cats pregnant?) and delivered her litter over spring break while we were out of town. My grandfather, H. Richard Nussbaum was in charge of keeping track of her progress, and the kittens were delivered in a box of sandpaper in our basement. Once the kittens were weaned, Sesame was given away, along with the kittens. I am sure a reason for her departure was provided to me, but what it was I no longer recall.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Playing with Sugar was the best. First, you had to find him and catch him. He was a big cat, and even carrying him upstairs might have been something. I was very, very small when I was little. I was so small that when I was in kindergarten, and in first grade, and in every other grade of elementary school, I stood in the class picture on the end in the front row. The year that I was breathing and my stomach is all round and full of air, you could see it. The years that we wore sneakers and socks with our dresses, you could see it. The year that I scratched my arm you could see that, too. Once I got Sugar trapped in my room, I would undress the baby dolls with the flannel night gowns and the sleeping caps. The gown from the little doll fit on Sugar, but he had to wear the bigger hat. Then you tried to make him sleep in the doll beds, but of course he never would. It was then that I discovered all the things you can do to cats: how they react when you put a sock over their head, how they can’t walk if you tie something around their belly, and how fast they can run when they have a dress on. In retrospect, I don’t think I was very nice to my cat Sugar, but I loved him very much, and I can say for sure that if I ever really hurt him he would have scratched me hard and run off. Cats, after all, are hunters. If house cats were bigger and we were smaller, they would hunt us, catch us, play with us, kill us, play with our dead bodies some more, and maybe eat us, but maybe not.

Monday, December 7, 2009


At the end of first grade, I got two kittens for my birthday, which made me gloriously happy. They were brothers who came with the names Sugar and Spice; changing their names might have been something a creative loud-mouthed family like mine would do, but we couldn’t agree on anything else, as loud-mouth argumentative families are wont to do. The cats were black, short-haired fellows with yellow eyes whose mother had been found in a trash can in Tan-Tar-A or Sarasota (whichever resort town it was, she was named for it) and had been brought home by a family friend of my parents. Their mother rewarded her rescuers with a promptly produced litter of three. Their sister looked like a Siamese, like their mother, which meant that Sugar and Spice grew up to have long, snouty profiles and one had a loud voice. Spice suffered some sort of superficial wound to a front leg as a youngster and thereafter had a large white patch on his leg surrounding a bald, scarred, spot, did not live as long as Sugar, but he lived long enough to wear doll clothes and ride in carriages and generally do the duties of a small girl’s cat, as Sugar did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


The crows were probably the worst of my problems in first grade. They swooped at me when I walked, tiny and alone to school. Sometimes I would sit on the step outside the back door of our house crying to be let back in. My heartless mother would lock me out, so it was school or nothing. Sometimes school was cool and amazing, like the day I found the book “Little House on the Prairie” in the library and read it. Or like the times Mrs. Anastasoff would get out her guitar and sit on her desk and sing to us. Or the day the war was supposed to be over, when kids ran up and down the halls saying “The war is over!” I didn’t know there was a war. I really didn’t. I only knew about World War II, which had been over for a long time.

Monday, November 30, 2009


To look at a crow is to know how deadly and dangerous it is. It is much, much larger than any other city bird. It can fly up from the ground quickly, and it can fly down to the ground from the top of a tree just as easily as I might have bent down to tie my shoe. They are completely black, and you can’t see their faces. They are loud, and make unearthly noises. They gather in large groups in the winter, and they know how to get into a trashcan. I have seen a Seattle crow go into a trashcan with a covered lid, come out with a Dick’s bag, and open the bag and take out the orange foil from a burger, all in the time it takes for a traffic light to change. Crows eat all sorts of strange things, and they do strange things, too. Sometimes they will spend a lot of time pulling moss off of trees and letting it drop to the ground. Perhaps they are looking for food or gathering nest-making materials, but whatever it is, it’s frightening.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


In those days, kids walked to school, and walked by themselves, even if they were tiny girls with skinny arms and skinny legs like me. I was expected to walk through the neighborhood behind our house, which was thoroughly haunted from end to end. It had grotesque trees that were ready to catch you up in their limbs and crush you if only they could reach you. The houses were all different from each other, not little variations on a theme as it was in my neighborhood, where all the houses were brick. No, on Polo Drive there were houses that looked like castles, and houses with circular driveways, and Tudor houses with crooked timbers and crazy crooked bricks. Some of the houses looked big enough to be schools or hospitals. Clearly, most of them were haunted: you never saw cars, or people going in or out. There weren’t any nasty loose Schnauzers trying to bite you, like there were on Davis Drive. There were gaping sidewalk cracks showing just where the trolls were hiding, just there underground. The sidewalks were not straight and square like there were in my neighborhood. They were curved. It seemed all wrong. Even the street signs used a scary, gothic, unreadable font, as if to let you know how haunted it was. Absolutely worst of all, there were the crows.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


When I was little, I had thick dark hair, cut in bangs, dark eyes and a dark glare. I was afraid of too many things in my world (the basement, the crows in the neighborhood behind our house, my grandparents, mixtures of food), and I know I cried a lot. If I complained too, I don’t remember it. I just remember crying.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

(heavy sigh)

I have just enough time to get an espresso at Gerasmo's on the way to picking up Gus from school. Or, do I?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Il Volto Santo di Sansepolcro

This very old crucifix hangs in the cathedral in Sansepolcro. After seeing it on a tour led by our guide Rohaise, I revisited the Volto Santo a number of times during my stay, showing it to a number of friends. He has a large, wise and slighly sad face, long arms and fingers, and he is made of wood. In the Museo Civico, you can see the crown and robe the townspeople used to dress him in once a year, when he would be used in a procession.

In this picture, I am holding a card depicting Il Volto Santo. To my right is Simon, who gave it to me. To my left are Stephanie, Bill, Roseanne, Martin, Bob and Kathy. We are standing on the sidewalk in Anghiari.

Jokes told by 11-year-olds, and other miracles

Earlier this summer my 11-year-old told a version of this joke at dinner. Here is how he told it to me today:
So this guy goes to a job audition for the person who is going to ring the bell on the top of a great big tower to wake everybody up. It was a pretty easy job, so the man thought it woud be pretty easy and he would get the job. So he goes in the building and the job auditioner says "Well, you can just about have the job, all you have to do is ring a bell."
Then he says, "Wait a minute, dude, you don't have any arms."
And the guy is like, "Naw, don't worry, I can make it work."
So he climbs up the tower and the job auditioner says "Alright, show me how you're gonna do this."
So then, he starts slamming his face against the bell. Job auditioner says, "Ok, you can have the job, but that looks like it hurts."
Unfortunately, a few days later, the man accidentally fell off the tower. All the townspeople crowded around him. One said,"Does anyone know who this guy is?"
The job auditioner came up and said, "I dunno, but his face rings a bell."

This is the view of Sansepolcro from the bell tower of the cathedral there. The confraternity of bellringers performed a demonstration for us. I had forgtten the joke told in June and remembered it suddenly at this visit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tour of a Factory

With the departure of the Napoleonic armies, the Busatti family chose to keep milling fabric in Anghiari, which they have done since 1842. Housed in a 500-year-old building, their fabrics are yarn-dyed and woven from linen, cotton, and wool and their products are of the very highest quality. As visitors, we were treated to a tour, offered prosecco and Vin Santo to drink, and entertained by a local pianist.

A walking tour of this town took us to the Town Hall, which contained a number of frescoes, including this one. I like seeing San Sebastiano because he is so easy to recognize; martyred when he was shot full of arrows, his depictions always include lots of wounds and the expression on his face is typically serene.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lost in Rome

When the trains in Italy break down and you are stuck with a carload of Italians, they like to hypothesize about what has happened to the train, what might be happening to fix it, and when they've finished with discussing it amongst themselves, they use their cell phones to call whoever is waiting for them. I was viewed with suspicion, being unable to participate in any of these exchanges.
I did make it to Rome in plenty of time to find my hotel and wander around, but after an early dinner (which is against all the rules), I headed back to my hotel only to get turned around at dusk, whereupon there was thunder and lightning and torrential rain. In the end I found the hotel again and was asleep by 8:30.

The next day, I went to the Vatican to see a fresco by Raphael. There were other things to see along the way, like the Sisteen Chapel and a lot of headless marble statuary, but I had this one thing in mind: "The School of Athens."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chocolate for dessert

Yesterday, I was told that if I headed out the Porta Della Ponte, crossed the street and the railroad tracks, passed under the freeway and kept going, I would reach the banks of the Tiber River. What I found was that pavement gave way to a gravel road, which became more and more rutted and eventually became a dirt road which did indeed go all the way to the edge of the Tiber. Along the way, I left behind the suburban homes to pass crumbling country estates, and then a couple of gritty rural shacks overrun with chickens and a pack of small, red, scruffy dogs. Surrounded by corn and tobacco fields, I was rescued from a full-blown case of the creeps by a couple of songs from Tom Brosseau's album "Grand Forks."
At dinner, my friends and classmates Alex, Justin and Simon hosted a dinner presentation on the herbal remedies industry, providing us with a multi-sensory experience. During dessert, they were extolling a few of the less obvious virtues of chocolate, and I made a snarky comment to Bill, seated next to me. "Nothing says let's get it on like the end of diarrhea."
Bill and I laughed ourselves sick.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What we have eaten in Italy

Of course I have had a lot of pizza in Italy, and pasta as well. Two nights ago, I enjoyed a mushroom risotto dish that was certainly the best risotto I have ever had. Last night, we had a picnic of bread, salami and cheese with some truly good wine, and because it was a group of us who had built the bonds of friendship both over some miles of mountain trails and in the context of a leadership class we did together, it will be a meal I think of for a lot of time to come.
Some complain that in the past gelato was a seasonal treat in Italy, but now it is ubiquitous. In areas of towns with regular tides of tourists, a gelateria can be found on nearly every block. Gelato is something one can enjoy while walking and talking, two things both Italians and tourists do a lot. So far, I have tried zabaione (which was made with the local dessert wine Vin Santo and easily the best gelato imaginable), stunningly white cocco (coconut), nocciola (hazelnut), pesca (peach), stracciatella (chocolate chip), pistacchio, and a surpringly tasty and fresh pineapple. If it sounds like I have eaten a lot of gelato, I have.

Tierser Alpl

Terminal #3 has been very uncooperative as I attempt to post a photo to the previous entry. Rather than fight it, I offer this shot of the Tierser Alpl, the lodge to which we hiked in the Dolomites.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Before we headed into the Dolomite mountains from Seis, my friend Tony and I found ourselves waiting for some other people in our group, and since he couldn't remember it, I told him the story of Rumpelstilskin.
The next day, the subject of my telling this story came up a few times, and I was asked to tell it again. At the end of the day, once I had already crawled into bed, a couple of friends from the expedition came into my room to hear the story, and were soon joined by a few others. I told the full version of Rumpelstiltskin, which has an ending that is both satisfying and not. To remedy this, I told a version of the story "Princess Gorilla and the New Kind of Water," complete with my own embellishments, including monkey noises, Baboon advisors, and an ending extolling the virtues of allowing a princess to choose her own husband, or even no husband at all. I am not sure I am telling it the way it appears in print, but I like my version well enough to stand by it anyway.
The next night, a number of my classmates wanted to hear it again. Others had missed it, and really wanted to be sure they would get to hear it. We packed our room (which had three bunk beds and not much room for more than that) and I told both stories again. As you might imagine, the story got longer and better every time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tigre contro tigre

What can I say about Rimini?
The streets of Rimini are lined with many medium-sized sycamore trees--some of the loveliest trees I have yet seen in urban northern Italy. Watch out for the storm drains, though, because from them emanates a smell more unpleasant and pungent than any city drain I have ever encountered. There is a vast swath of dark tan sand at the water's edge, covered from the pavement to the surf with umbrellas and beach chairs. The waiters at the Gatto Nero were AC Milan fans and set up a chant of "Mi-Lan, Mi-lan!" when I told them I knew the team. And I did have a nice dinner (pasta with the tiniest clams), a decent bottle of Sangiovese, together with a group of good friends I made on the leadership course in the Dolomites.
Breakfast has been included with the hotel, and always seems to consist of a tray of ham and cheese, an array of sweet pastries, and a baffling coffee machine.
Now I have arrived in the small Tuscan town of Sansepolcro. Some of us nearly missed the train from Rimini to Bologna, and having flung ourselves on board discovered that we had taken some other peoples' assigned seats. We fought our way out of that car and across several other cars to find we were seated with the very people who had ditched us at the station. Another train from Bologna to Firenze (where there were no seats so we had to stand for the hour), and a third from Firenze to Arezzo. Finally, in Arezzo there was a bus ride to here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lost in Venice

Having arrived around midnight, I caught the last ferry into Venice. I got off in the wrong spot, and my directions were unclear, and I started to walk in what turned out to be the wrong direction: the first of many, many wrong turns. I walked in the dark for perhaps 15 minutes before being found by an English couple who thought I looked like I needed help. They took me back to their hotel, where the concierge tried first to decipher my directions and ultimately called my hotel. He drew a pencil line on my map which meant I had to cross the Rialto bridge to a different part of the city.
Once I got myself onto the right side of the Rialto Bridge, going "straight" was a matter of interpretation, and finding the proper street took quiet a bit of circling. There is a late night party scene here only at certain osterias, but it seemed pretty benign. I was frightened by the tone of a group of young drunk men, and then an enormous rat ran across my path, which only made me mad. By the time I found my hotel I was rather wound up.
The next day I had blisters on my feet, so I wore different shoes, which gave me more, different blisters. At the end of the day I wore my third pair of shoes (flip-flops) which gave me the worst blisters of all. We ran into the people who helped me in the dark in the afternoon, and they admitted that they rescued lost people every night as they come home from dinner.

A Flight from London's Gatwick Airport to Venice

It was an Airbus A319 (I think), and it made a lot of high-pitched alarming noises. "Business Class" was the first three rows, with the exact same seating configuration as the rest of the plane. The differences were the presence of a curtain, a lack of passengers in the middle seats, and the presence of a flight attendant serving drinks and food. Too many drinks were served to a woman on my row, which was noticeable from her rising tone of voice and laughter. In the end, she could barely walk unassisted from the plane. The more desirable entree was chosen by all the passengers ahead of me, and there was no apology for me (as there had been for the man plying his female companion with too much wine): there was simply a tray with cold salmon shoved in my face.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"the promise being made, must be kept"

I am still reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals. The time constraints of my life mean that I have been reading it for many months now. I am on page 567 with perhaps 150 more to go.
The flight to London was uneventful, and I can't help but reflect on how it took Lincoln as long to make a visit to the battlefields of the Civil War as it took me to get here. Plus, I got dinner and wine served upon doll-house dishes, slightly startling but cheery flight attendants, and a cheese course for dessert.
I had to change airports in London, taking a bus between them. Normally an hour's ride, terrible traffic problems on the M-24 (I think) meant that we took the "cross country" route. To my mind, this meant driving off-road, but what he meant was off-the-freeway. The bus driver apologized once before we left, once after he closed the doors, twice on the way and once more at the end. I am not a regular bus rider, but I have never heard one apologize for antyhing before.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I am packing for a trip

I have a new suitcase, which was just the right size in the store and grew to monstrous dimensions on the way home. I have tried to take only what I will really need; this includes a sun hat and a flashlight, which were recommended, and some books, which were my idea. My suitcase is not full. The dog Captain is worried about what I am doing and gets in the shot.

I am not a runner, so I am leaving my running shoes at home. There are some things I know I will miss, like the New York Times, my own pillows, and the jokes my children tell me. I do not know if I will miss these shoes.