Meet Little Gus. He’s the one not wearing a dinosaur raincoat. Instead, he’s wearing a coat warmer than wool and soft as cashmere, in one of twenty-two natural colors.
Little Gus is a cria, or baby alpaca, and in addition to wearing a lovely coat that, when he’s fully grown, could potentially become ten pounds of Ralph Lauren sweaters or the world’s most luxurious socks, he also knows where to poop. The alpaca uses several communal waste piles in a pasture and their natural cleanliness, along with their gentle, aloof nature–two ranchers I’ve spoken with have likened them to cats–make them ideal tenants and soothing company.
We visited Little Gus and about ninety of his huacaya pasture-mates a few weekends ago, on a road trip to Peaceful Prairie Ranch, just over ninety minutes north in Arizona’s altiplano. (Huacaya, pronounced “walk-EYE-uh”, are the most common of two types of alpaca, Huacaya and suri (pronounced “SOO-ree.”) They live with Wendy Dittbrenner, on acreage she’s crafted into an ideal alpaca preserve, with divided pastures for males, females, crias and their mamas, visiting stock, etc. She also keeps a small herd of Merino sheep, a variety of hairy sheepdogs, and a henhouse around which colorful chickens strutted.
Wendy breeds the animals for health, temperament and fiber. Each April on shearing day, professionals wielding razors liberate the animals of their coats, which can yield from five to nearly ten pounds of useable fleece. I’m a fan of alpaca yarn–Nanny knit me a sweater of 100% alpaca several years ago, and it’s the only fiber I’ve found that rivals cashmere for its light weight, warmth, and softness.
Each alpaca is unique in appearance and temperament–they all had names and Wendy knew them by sight. Although the bots were curious about the big, fluffy critters, Mbot kept drifting across the yard toward the chickens. Chickens do not poop in discreet piles, they poop everywhere. And it smells vile. Mbot was not discouraged. It is confounding to me that a child who can smell dog food from across the room and identify two teaspoons of espresso in an entire batch of fudgy cupcake batter does not mind the smell of chicken poop on his boots. Nonetheless, Mbot attempted the whole time we were visiting to pat a chicken. He finally succeeded, and the hen, a silken gold and brown, stood obligingly still as a beaming Mbot stroked her feathers.
Driving home, Mbot asked if we could get another pet. “I’m ready to move on from my starting creature,” he announced. (His starting creature is the antique cat, whom he sometimes feeds and waters.)
“Well,” I replied, “I don’t think we’ll get Little Gus. They’re herd animals, and so we’d really have to get two or three, and we don’t have room for them.”
“No, Mom,” he said. “I want a chicken.”
But pictures and poop on our boots will have to do for now.
I am so consumed by the present that any glance back into the past is jarring–almost surreal. So much changed when I became a mother. Not just the usual big-then-saggy boobage, belly fat, hair-falling-out, sudden-fact-that-I-am-in-love-with-a-helpless-alien sort of things. I’d married Husbot just one year before; I’d met him nine months before that. I relocated from a place and community I’d lived in and loved for ten years to a foreign land. (Just because the same currency is used and the same language is spoken thirty minutes west of Phoenix, Arizona and the Wood River Valley, nearly two hundred miles east of Boise, Idaho, doesn’t mean the two locations are not as different as Amsterdam and New Amsterdam). At the same time, I lost a friendship–or at least, it changed, dramatically and irrevocably. I still grieve for it.
Things were different, and would never be the same.
The bots and I return to the Wood River Valley twice a year, and each time, I am confronted with the past. We usually stay with my parents, who retired here twenty years ago; I sleep under the same crewelwork image of a girl carrying a cat that was above my bed in Alaska as a child. There is news of the old boyfriend and his wife, who are friends of friends and family. Every visit to the grocery store in this small town offers chance meetings with former colleagues and acquaintances. Sometimes they recognize me but sometimes they don’t remember my name. I introduce myself. We catch up in that inane way that takes ninety seconds. And then we push our carts in opposite directions, the way our lives have gone.
And so it should not have been unexpected but was nonetheless very strange last night, while inspecting the contents of my parents’ liquor cabinet before dinner, to come across a drink recipe I’d written for my father about fifteen years ago. It was a remnant of still another life, when I was working in my twenties for a famous Denver restaurateur who foresaw trends sometimes a decade before they became trends. (He poured me my first Cosmopolitan in 1993, three years before Carrie Bradshaw first tipped one back in a move that would forever determine the cocktail of choice for women now between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five.)
This recipe was for the Caiperana, which never enjoyed quite the notoriety of its pink sister, but made a comeback ten years ago at wedding receptions and on creative cocktail menus across the country, and more recently has featured in one of Jo Nesbo’s bestselling thrillers, in which the hero, a Norwegian detective with a taste for anything fifty-proof and above, finds himself stuck somewhere in South America and glad that the only available drink is a local version of the caiperana, brewed from the fiery and wince-inducing native liquor, distilled apparently with little consideration for flavor from raw cane sugar.
In a bow to the past, I’ll transcribe the recipe here as I wrote it back then. It made me laugh, which of course was a bittersweet kind of laughter, because I want it back. I mean, I want the parts of my past the made me laugh back. It’s a stupid thing to want–that’s what memory is for, that’s what stories are for. And soon enough–tomorrow, as it turns out–today will be the past that made me laugh.
For one drink:
2 teaspoons brown sugar
3 oz. Pitu cachaca
dash simple syrup* (*double-strength hummingbird food)
little spoon (optional)** (**a swizzle stick will do)
First, learn to pronounce both the drink and the liquor. This will entail learning a foreign language, so be ready to practice. Practicing after having served your guests yields the best results as, while your linguistic skills may not improve greatly, your listeners, as they empty their glasses, will become much more accepting of the injustices you perpetrate against the Spanish language.
But practicing beforehand doesn’t hurt. While chanting ca-CHA-cha, ca-CHA-cha, slice the lime in a complicated manner. That is, cube it as if you were cubing a potato, if you ever cube potatoes, but don’t cut all the way through the peel at the tip. You will understand why momentarily.
Place the lime pointy-side down in the glass and pestle it soundly to squeeze out the juices. Meanwhile, repeat, ky-per-ANN-ya, ky-per-ANN-ya quietly to yourself so that your guests don’t know you’re getting a headstart on pronunciation.
Add the cachaca and simple syrup and fill the glass to the brim with crushed ice. Insert the little spoon.
Sip slowly and stir the drink constantly so that the ice dilutes the concoction and you remain scintillating for as long as possible before being reduced to a pleasant stupor. Keep prodding the lime with the little spoon to extract all the juices. If you have mastered them by this time, work the words caiperana and cachaca into the conversation at frequent intervals so that your guests will be duly impressed.
* * *
Skol! Salud! Here’s to the past. Here’s to change.
For those of you who read yesterday’s cryptic post before I discovered that most of it was missing, I apologize. Now, in today’s few bot-free minutes, I will try to recreate it:
11,000 years ago, a sloth fell through a crack. It fell into a cave. It couldn’t get out. It died in the cave.
The kind docent in the Shasta Ground Sloth cave at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum told us this story on Sunday when we were admiring the fossilized skeleton and the ancient sloth poop that I managed to not delete in yesterday’s post.
The bots listened with great concern and then baraged the docent with questions. “Why did he fall through the crack?” (I was going to answer, ’because it didn’t come when it’s mother called it’ but she beat me with ‘Sloths don’t have very big brains.’) “Why could he not get out?” (There was no door.) “Why did he die?” (Because he couldn’t get out of the cave.) While Mbot tried on a giant pair of bat ears which magnified all the cave sounds, Gbot stood rooted in place beside the docent, craning his neck upward to look at her and repeating the questions. Perhaps hoping for different, better answers. But the answers didn’t change.
On the way home, he retold the story many times.
Gbot: “The three-tailed ground sloth fell through the crack. He fell into the cave. He couldn’t get out and” (voice lowering sadly) “he died in the cave.”
Over the next few days, the story was told over and over again. To Daddy, to Aunt Susan, to Grandma, to Nanny over the phone, to Miss Mary the music teacher. It was obviously sad and disturbing. How was I to know it was going to turn into a story of rescue and redemption?
On Wednesday, from the backseat, Gbot told the story again. “But Mama,” he said, “we could use Bob the Builder’s tools!”
“You’re right!” I exclaimed. “A jackhammer can cut through concrete and rock.”
Gbot: “Yeah, and we could make a door and he would say, ‘What a wonderful door you made, Mama and Gbot,’ and he would go through the door in the cave and he would go home to his mommy. And we would go home and talk about how the sloth fell into the cave and got out the door. And the sloth would say, ‘Thank you for making my door in the cave.’”
I praised his creative solution to the sloth’s big problem. Now, perhaps, we could stop hearing about the sloth in the cave. Although it was awfully cute.
But of course, as all answers do, this one led to another question. After a brief pause from the back seat, Gbot asked, concern edging his voice again,
“What if we were sloths, Mama?”
“We would be careful sloths, Spice Bear,” I said. “And we would always carry jackhammers, just in case.”
More about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum later this week. There were many moments to savor. Today’s recommendation, which would have been yesterday’s recommendation if my post hadn’t fallen through a crack, is: Go there!
“But why could it not get out?” they asked, again, several times, with great concern.
“There was no door,” she replied.
* * *
I guess I should have named this post “Lucky Betsy’s Unlucky Day,” because when I came to see that the post had been published, it had, minus 99% of the story. The only thing that remained were the two lines above, from somewhere in the middle of the post. I have no idea how this happened. Nearly my entire text fell into oblivion, just like the giant sloth did 11,000 years ago. I’d stolen time to write about it while my niece watche the bots, and now she’s gone, and so it will have to wait for a moment when the bots are trying to spread yogurt all over themselves or open up the new apple juice container or tip over my coffee by themselves. Oh well. The sloth waited 11,000 years to be discovered by us; I guess it can wait another day. Sometimes I believe that motherhood and blogging are about as compatible as a ground sloth and an underground cave.
There has been more rain this summer than any summer in the last five years. Which means that here in West Phoenix, we’ve been rained on maybe eight times since March, and all in the last three weeks. As the heat builds over the desert, clouds begin building over the Bradshaw Mountains, twenty miles to the north. Some years, they build for a month of afternoons, hovering like a promise on the horizon and vanishing by morning into a dense humidity that dissipates in the baking oven of midmorning.
But this year, the rain has been falling. The timing coincided with my lugging the livingroom rug outside and draping it over the patio railing to hose off after the latest bouts of canine incontinence. My plan was that it would dry in twelve hours, at which point I’d bring it back in and call the rug cleaner. But then it rained, so I left it out to dry. And then it rained again. And again.
But while the rug was languishing in the storms and the eucalyptus on the front lawn came down one night, the bots reveled in the puddles appeared and reappeared miraculously overnight. One of Mbot’s fashion-foward friends asked her mother if she could buy a “mud suit” especially for playing in puddles. The bots are not so concerned about specific mud duds. For them, anything will do, from diapers to school clothes.
But while my patience for tomatoes smashed on a door is limited, my patience for mud-soaked weebots is about infinite. I grew up in Juneau, Alaska, on the edge of a coastal rainforest. It was a world of reflections. Although I found the near-constant overcast oppressive, the reflections–on the bay, on the wet macadam, in the puddles on the playground–were like live scraps of energy, rippling with their own life–maybe I liked them so much because like liquid mirrors, they added light to world of blues and grays.
I have come to crave the rain here like I craved the sun there. And so when the puddles appear, we sit in them. And we pay the extra fee for having the backing on the rug replaced because, it turns out, saturation is not nearly as good for rugs as it is for children.
Thank you for killing the black widow spider hanging in front of the front door.
But did you have to throw away my broom afterward? The one with the whimsically stripy handle that makes me feel not quite so bitter about sweeping?
I mean, I’m totally thrilled that you a.) identified the spider that I incorrectly identified as “not a black widow, I didn’t see that red hour glass on its back,” b) didn’t snicker while pointing out that the hourglass is actually on its tummy and c) stomped on it repeatedly because my simply throwing two issues of the Sunday New York Times on it the night before when I incorrectly identified it was obviously an inadequate murder technique.
But did you have to throw away my broom afterward? Without telling me? And not replace it? Immediately? In a household in which gravity is twice as strong as at other locations on Earth, and in which at least once a week an object fabricated either of glass or ceramics explodes on the tile floor?
Really. Thank you for compensating for my ignorance regarding the Insects of the Desert and their feeding, sleep, and recreational habits. I had not known that a spider hanging no more than eighteen inches above the ground in a lit doorway at night would be a spider that could poison my children. Forgive me: our children. And that a black widow has a tough exoskeleton that renders it impervious to the impact of even a month’s worth of lightly read Times. And that after suffering such an insult, it would scurry into a hole until darkness fell again, at which point it would resume hunting. In our doorway.
But did you have to throw away my broom afterward? I still don’t quite understand why. When there are four extremely tender feet that depend on my using it almost daily. Did you throw it away because of the black widow, or because you then used it to reach the giant cockroach that I spotted camping out high on the wall, after you’d killed the black widow? The one that instigated a call to Pete the Bug Guy who I thought you’d called last month?
Thank you for killing the giant cockroach.
But did you have to throw away my broom?
In an interestingly serendipitous sequence of events, within three days last week, Mbot set fire to a paper Spiderman napkin, Husbot and I saw Prometheus, and the family caught a discoverment at the Arizona Stomach Center entitled “Combustion.” What do these things have in common? Read on.
The first event occurred just after Nanny and the bots set the table for my birthday party. Uncle Marty and Grandma were coming over for dinner. Nanny was busy in the kitchen boiling lobsters. (She was not wearing earplugs, as, fortunately, their screams are silent. (Z, that was for you.) I was shucking corn. The bots were behaving, by which I mean kind of watching Caillou and kind of playing with balloons and kind of doing crafts. I laid out the cheese and crackers, I opened the wine. I moved a giant candle to the center of the table–a table whose center is farther from its edges than bots’ arms are long–and lit it. The bots tried to blow out the three flames from their positions on the chairs. They couldn’t. I told them to stop trying. That fire is dangerous. Blah, blah. blah. Then I turned around to do whatever I had to do to continue getting dinner ready.
Moment later, as I was taking a serving plate down for the corn, I heard Mbot’s voice. “Uh, Mom? There’s a fire on the table.”
I whirled and yes! Lo and behold, there was a fire on the table. A small one, exactly the size of a paper Spiderman napkin. I rushed over and lifted the single unburned corner and dropped it on the serving plate that was still in my hand, then dropped it into the sink and turned on the water. And then I attempted to explain how he could have hurt himself, and us. Blah, blah, blah. He remained unfazed. So Nanny had a go at it. She explained that he might have hurt Junepbear by mistake. And that’s what got through. There was crying, and promises to never play with fire. My heart rate was still about 160. I washed the serving plate and piled lobster on it. The guests arrived and dinner was served while Uncle Marty and Husbot discussed Prometheus, Ridley Scott‘s prequel to Alien, which Uncle Marty (an author and screenwriter) had just seen at the IMAX in 3D.
The next day, Husbot decided we had to see it. And here is my completely uneducated review: It was okay. There were problems. It was also confusing. But fun to discuss and try to make sense of. Prometheuswas the name of the spaceship that arrived on a distant planet seeking the origins of mankind. Students of mythology or art history will know that Prometheus is the name of the god who took fire from the heavens and gave it to man. As punishment, he was chained to a rock, and every night an eagle flew down to eat out his liver, and every day it grew back. This happened for all eternity.
One thing about the movie isn’t confusing. One of the morals of the story is: Don’t play with fire. Not to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, but fire, in this case, is the biological weaponry that a superior race with a god syndrome (or are they god???) had developed in order to destroy whole planetfuls of other carbon-based lifeforms. Perhaps in order to start from scratch with the hope of a better outcome (a world without the color mauve? Without reality TV and the Hilton sisters?)
Of course, the characters don’t KNOW at first that the animate sludge on the distant planet peopled by large dead guys will turn into large gross monsters that will shoot large gross appendages down their throats. (Again, I hope I’m not ruining something for someone.) The humans are seeking knowledge, and that is their downfall. Like knowledge, fire is a thing that must be used carefully and that can destroy more than paper Spiderman napkins and stuffed bears.
Which brings us to the Stomach Center. We visited it the next morning because Nanny had never been. The bots loved showing her the waterworks, the exhibit on nanoparticles, the giant telescope you look through and see your own eye projected on a big circular screen on the ceiling. Mbot wanted to see the kitty brain. No one except Nanny was brave enough to go into the giant stomach (from which the Arizona Science Center takes its bot-given name). I won a game of Mindball against Nanny, but solely because I knew she was worrying about where the bots were while we were playing, and so I didn’t have to worry about where the bots were. And then a demonstration began, about combustion.
Mbot dragged me to an empty seat and sat, riveted, while two college students explained the three sides of the fire triangle (fuel, oxygen, and heat).
They poured alcohol into a clear plastic twenty-gallon water bottle, pumped in air, and dropped in a match. Mbot jumped about two inches at the fireball that momentarily filled the bottle. Then they threw lycopodium powder into the air and aimed an acetylene torch at it. Then they held a flame to Peter Cottonball and we all watched as it was reduced to a blackened puff of its former self. Then they explained how to use a fire extinguisher. And then, they told everyone in the audience to put their hand over their heart–Mbot did so immediately–and solemnly repeat after them: “I promise to never play with fire.”
Mbot repeated it. “I promise to never play with fire.” Then he glanced sideways up at me, and added, “Again.”
And the next day he was back to his discoverments with liquids, pouring his cup of milk at breakfast into the mouth of a deflated balloon to see if it could be done (yes, to a point), and if, after it was done, he could drink out of it (yes, to a point). As I was mopping up, I banned (again) all discoverments involving liquids to the bathtub.
But it doesn’t look like there will be any more discoverments involving fire. Not until he gets his first chemistry set, or falls in love.
We’ve been busy–my mother’s in town for the week. The bots have been counting down the “sleeps” until Nanny arrived and now that she’s here, we’ve been going nonstop.
One of the highlights for the bots during his last June visit was a trip across town to the Chinese Cultural Center, which features an enormous Asian grocery called, for reasons I have not yet ascertained, 99 Ranch. Last year, with the bots 2 11/12 and 1 3/4, everything in every aisle was a marvel, especially the produce department with vegetables of every conceivable texture, shape, and shade of green, the swordlike lemongrass, carrots the size of a half-bottle of wine, watermelon-sized jack fruit resembling scared pufferfish, and especially the real fish–about thirty different varieties on ice and six great tanks filled with live tilapia, catfish, Dungeness crab, and our main objective: the Maine lobsters, $10.99/pound.
Behind the counter, four men in rubber boots and aprons stand on high stools to dip fish from the tanks and take silver-bladed cleavers and giant yellow rubber mallets to chop each fish in one of six ways, illustrated on a board hanging above the counter. Last year, we had to pull the bots away. I myself could watch for hours without getting bored, in spite of the pungent low-tide smell.
Well. This year, with a 3 11/12 year-old and a 2 3/4 year-old, was an entirely new experience. In the produce department, everyone was cold and wanted to be held. They are both too big for Nanny to carry, and too big for me to carry both. We took turns. The bot in the cart complained of being cold and not being held. As we neared the fish counter, wailing about the smell began. It didn’t bother Gbot, but Mbot, who is notoriously sensitive to smell and has remained largely resistent to my attempts to introduce him to foods other than cereal, peanut-butter, hamburgers, chocolate, ice cream, and broccoli, refused to be diverted for more than a minute at a time by the tilapia, the catfish, the crabs, or the lobsters. A hole was poked in the lobster bag and Nanny went back for another.
It was among the least pleasant grocery shopping trips of the year, mostly due to dashed expectations.
In the past six months, I’ve rarely been taken so totally by surprise by the bots’ response to an experience. I realize this trip was a preview of teendom, when nothing that is my idea will prove to be anything other than boring, too smelly, or too cold. But we got the lobsters, we got the Tsing Tao, and we escaped without setting fire to anything. Which is more than I can say for that evening, when Mbot found out what happens when you hold a paper Spiderman napkin over a candle.
But that’s a story for another day.
Or, to bastardize Emily Dickenson: Self-Forgiveness is the Car with Feathers in its Grill.
Doesn’t seem to make sense. That’s because sense has little or nothing to do with it. Sense is the thing that tries valiantly and in vain to override instinct, synapses, chemicals–namely, hormones.
Let me start again: Every May, drivers in Phoenix are treated to a feast of aviary roadkill. It is often found in pairs. Doves, I think. Of some kind. Rather small. Gray and feathery. In May, one will notice couples of these birds crossing the road, chasing one another from one lane to the other–blind to oncoming hazards much bigger, much harder, and with much more inertia than themselves.
For those of you who haven’t guessed it already, May is, for these birds, mating season.
Made me think of my own mating seasons. The strange, bad, funny, head-shakingly inappropriate choices I made in love on the road to Husbot. In disecting the intricacies of my intimacies, it is easy to not forgive myself some of the remarkable detours along the way. In my MFA Creative Nonfiction program, we were warned about this. Be kind, we were told. Be kind to your younger self. You were only a child. A teen. A young woman. Still a young woman. And be kind to yourself, now. I know everyone preaches that. But it begs the question: If I’m TOO kind, then how the hell will I EVER learn ANYTHING? Ah, that darned rationality stepping in again.
I recommend to everyone who can empathize to drive under the speed limit toward two birds walking in the road–one named Romeo, the other Juliet–expecting them to fly away at the last moment, thus miraculously avoiding contact with your car as birds always do–and then thwump, feeling the impact on your grill and watching a shower of small gray feathers wash across your windshield. It might make you realize that we need to forgive ourselves our mistakes in love. And consider ourselves lucky in all cases in which we don’t end up just a feather under the windshield wiper.