Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bee Attack!

It finally happened. I was stung. Attacked, really. A story in pictures:

It was an overcast day in the end of May, heavy with fog. Through thick air, I approached the hive armed only with a spray bottle filled with bee tea, having read somewhere that bees needn't be smoked. I can no longer remember where I received this information, and now suspect that I may have dreamt it.

I approached Hive #1, now called "She-Ra's hive" after her newly-named majesty. I cracked the lid and fired a few mists of bee tea into the hive as a peace offering. I opened the hive and saw this:
As you can see, the girls have started drawing out the comb.
She-Ra was also spotted, sporting a kelly green dot that the bee dude in Mass must have adhered to her abdomen. How did he immobilize her long enough to mark her? Perhaps he used a tiny stretcher.
It seemed that She-Ra's colony was progressing healthily, albeit slowly. I replaced the old bee tea with a new one, took some photos (She-Ra's girls are total hams!), closed her up, and shimmied over to Hive #2, now called "Beula's hive." Although I've never seen Queen Beula in action, I imagine her to operate in a similar manner to Ursula, the obese octopus in The Little Mermaid. Just as Ursula enacted complete control over her poor, unfortunate souls, Beula's army labors endlessly for their majesty, as illustrated in the over-production of comb in the photo below:
As you can see, Beula's girls devoured the bee tea. I decided they were ready to lose the feeding jar and start foraging in the big, bad world. (I left the feeding jar outside the hive, just in case the world was too big and bad.) Plus, I would need to remove the excess comb to make room for the... AAAAGGHHHHH!!!!!!
Beula's armed guards charged. The green sweep of blurred ivy in the photo above indicates swift movement. I threw the camera to the soft grass and simultaneously clutched my head and flinched from the tiny bee fingers that crept across my own. I am 100% certain that if anyone saw me doing this, they would a) call the police, b) run to my rescue, or c) write me off as a lunatic and call it a day, depending on the witness.

Option A would be pointless; by the time the police arrived, the perpetrators would be long gone. Option B would most likely precipitate the attack by introducing another victim to the mix. I conclude, therefore, that Option C is the most desirable. Which is fortuitous, because the neighbor's groundskeeper did, in fact, see me from a distance, and stared in confused amusement at my Ally-Sheedy-Breakfast Club-ish "dance." The bees used psychological tactics as well, such as buzzing crazily in my ear and then stopping abrubtly, causing me to pause in naive hope before violently delving deeper into my mane. The struggle lasted a solid five minutes. I held my hair in two fistfuls and squeezed hard. Silence. I cautiously released and the buzzing resumed, though muted. The hard, round pellet of insect body wiggled itself closer to my virgin-white scalp and thrust its sharp tail through the fragile flesh. At first, a sharp pain lasting about 30 seconds, then a short reprieve during which I thought, "Hey, this isn't so bad." I retrieved my camera from the grass and took this picture, a deep breath, and my first step back toward Beula's hive:
I acted quickly, as I knew the other bees would sense the attack pheromones lodged in my skull and charge. Knowing that this will happen does not make the happening any more pleasant. I fulfilled my duties mechanically, like the man who sees a kid drowning in a pond and finds himself neck-deep in a new suit before he even gets the chance to weigh the intrinsic value of a human child against that of an Oscar de la Renta suit. Signed, sealed, delivered, and out.

After another 3-4 minutes of the Ally Sheedy dance and at least 2 more stings, I inhaled deeply, collected myself, and waved to the neighbor's groundskeeper as if to say "I'm okay, don't worry about lil ol' me!" He looked at me sideways and turned around.

Around this time, the pain from sting #1 began its crescendo with a sharp, spreading prick that continued to climb to a stab until eclipsed by the crescendo of stings #2 and #3. My tender scalp felt lumpy. I thought of my haircut scheduled for the following day and shuddered. I ran my fingernails through the base of my hair in an attempt to dislodge the multiple stingers.

It hurt. It really did. I began to wonder how bee stings compared to hornet or yellowjacket stings in terms of pain. Luckily, instead of donating my body to science, I discovered that someone had already extensively researched the relative pain of the stings of tons of stinging insects. What I find so interesting about Justin O. Schmidt is not that he is an entomologist, or that he was "stung" through a bee veil by hornets launching venom into his eyes from 4 inches away. No, what I find so interesting is the way that he writes about the pain sensation from each sting. A few insects that he rates on a pain scale of 1-4:

1.0 Sweat Fly: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
2.0+/- Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
4.0 Tarantula hawk: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail
in your heel.

I find myself returning again and again to phrases like "someone has fired a staple into your cheek." Fascinating. It sounds like a clue given to teammates for a card in Taboo. Are we talking heavy duty staplers or mini kindergarden ones? Because taking a staple in the cheek is a big step up from the pain you encounter "walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch."

I should point out that Schmidt claims that he has sampled the stings of 150 insects on 6 continents without deliberately trying to get stung. Now this stumps me: how can you get stung 150 times, by 150 insects, without putting insect to skin and forcing the sting or inciting the insect to attack, like hitting a hornets' nest with a baseball bat? Just wondering.

But I digress. The language is so... nonscientific! Almost poetic! There is an intimacy to each sting; the sweat fly's sting is "almost fruity," like a summer wine. The yellowjacket's sting is "hot and smoky, almost irreverent," like the seasoned Madame of a 1940's brothel. And of course, the Bullet Ant, who scores off the charts with a 4+. (Why didn't he just make the scale 1-5?) The Bullet Ant's sting incites "pure, intense, brilliant pain." (Sounds like somebody's having fun!) The Bullet Ant's sting is so pure, so brilliant that it doesn't even register on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index! I wonder if Schmidt ever poured a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut...

Either way, I love Schmidt's literary lilt. It kicks some color back into Entomology, makes it alluring to us number-phobes. I must, however, dispute Schmidt's description of a honeybee's sting "like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin." What, no adjectives? And that's supposed to be worse than a staple in the cheek? Schmidt really dropped the ball on this one, as if he were writing a paper in Entomology 101 and by the time he got to "honeybee sting" he'd been awake for 28 hours and scribbled something thoughtlessly. (Which was unfortunate, because he was saving honeybee sting for last because of its popularity! Ain't that a shame...)

I would describe a honeybee sting, in classic Schmidt style, as:

"Throbbing, increasingly insidious. Like a burst appendix pumping poison."

The bottom line is this: I was too bold. I'd gotten too comfortable with the girls, perhaps thinking I was one of them for a short period of time. But I am NOT a honeybee. I'm a real human girl, and I am not immune to bee attacks, even though they love me like a sister and vice versa. Whatever was going on in Beula's hive was obviously important enough to warrant a scalp-attack. No biggie. Next time, I'll use the smoker and wear a hat. (And bee camo to be incognito, of course. Nothing like blending in.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How to Install a Hive: 17.5 Essential Steps

Before you begin...
Contemplate the task ahead of you during some quiet time. If possible, sunbathe on a Williamsburg rooftop and listen to the happy buzzing of two successful, self-sufficient hives. Meditate on the insanely intricate, beautiful process that you helped to enable on this rooftop. Imagine yourself walking through the same motions... bee tea, hive construction, the big dump... thousands of bees swirling dizzily through the smoke and into their new homes.

The following steps are presented in the order that I should have performed them, in hindsight. No need to confuse you with the beetails (/bee tales! double entendre pun!)

Step 1: Order bees. Mine came from New England Bees, aka this dude's house in Tyngsboro, Mass, about an hour from Boston.

Step 2: Order your hive materials WAY before you want them. I did not do this. Luckily, the good women at Bee-Commerce in Weston, CT (another garage-run business) were able to hook me up with some unassembled hives at the last minute.

Step 3: Assemble brood box using wood glue and nails.
Step 4: To protect the hive from inclement weather, prime and paint. Allow the latex-based paint to dry for at least 3 days. Beekeepers seem to all have conflicting theories about painting hives, therefore I opted for thrift and used the leftover paint from our shutters.

Step 5: Pick up your bees.
Step 5(a): Don't freak out about the 20+ bees that will be clinging to the outside of the screened box holding the bees (or "the bee jail," as my sister calls it.) They'll keep hanging on and will most likely leave you alone if you give them enough (but not too much) air from the windows. Feel free to take dangerous photographs on the highway during this step, as I did in an attempt to capture a unique moment in time from my perspective. Note the two stray bees chilling on the back window; they were my muses.
Step 6: Put bee jail in a cool, dry place (like a garage) and spray with water. Let the girls relax after the long journey.

Step 7: Assemble frames.

Step 8: Slip beeswax foundation into place in frames and affix. As an alternative, you can use starter strips, which allow the bees to build their own wax foundation.
Step 9: When the forecast is clear, prepare to install the bees by grabbing your bee tea and gathering dried leaves and sticks for your smoker.
Step 10: Smoke the girls to mask the alarm pheromones emitted by guard bees.
Step 11: Remove 2-3 frames and put the bee tea feeder (glass jar with holes poked in top) in the brood box. No. 2 pencils elevate the feeder just enough for the bees to crawl beneath and suck out the sweet nectar.
Step 12: Pry open the lid on the bee jail. Hold on to the strip while loosening the feeder can.

Step 13: Carefully remove the feeder can. Be careful not to drop the strip; it holds the queen's box. If you drop it, you'll have to fish through thousands of bees to retrieve it.

Step 14: Remove the queen's cage and blow the bees off to ensure she is present, alive, and separated.
Step 15: Convince another person to help you remove the cork from the opening of the queen's cage. Promptly stuff the opening with an edible plug, such as a marshmallow or raisin. (Note: Dads and boyfriends are good candidates for assisting with this task.)

Step 16: Hang the queen's cage on a frame in the hive. Then gather up your courage, relax your body, and think positive bee thoughts. (ex: bees are my friends.) Lift box, and dump contents (bees) into the brood box with a shaking motion. Aim for the center, near the queen.
Step 17: Cover the brood box and leave the hive alone for a while. The bees need to do their thing, and too much human contact, especially in the formative days, could impact the hive's overall health and efficiency.

That's pretty much it! Assembling the hives is time-consuming but straightforward. Dumping the bees is intimidating but magical.

Finally, some Do's and Don'ts, complete with photographs:

DO think like a bee. Consider the fact that your hands may be covered in bee tea, and let them nibble freely and without fear.
DON'T dump the bees on the ground instead of the brood box. If it feels awkward, chances are it's awkward.
DO experiment with bee attire. You'd be surprised what "works" for you:
DON'T wear flip flops, as the bees (that you just dumped on the ground) can crawl beneath your foot, restricting movement entirely and inciting mild panic.
Thankfully, Eliza helped me maneuver out of this situation. Ironically, she subsequently stepped on a bee and was stung.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Honey Dreams

Although beekeeping is the main subject around which all posts (tangentially) gather, this blog also aims to document my shift (and that of my friends) toward a more sustainable life.

Nowadays, the idea of sustainability is inextricably linked to environmentalism. For some strange reason, however, I've always been more compelled by the concept of sustainability than that of environmentalism. Sustainability seems to speak to the human aspect of environmentalism by appealing to our inherent selfishness: how do we benefit, as opposed to the Earth? Because let's face it, many people (especially people in 1st world countries) don't see the connection between the Earth's health and our own.

Environmentalism sounds hard. It conjures images of lugging out the recycling and the garbage. It implies more work. What is so incredibly pathetic about this perspective is that the "work," in reality, involves thought more than physical labor. But people, and I'm talking about us 'Mericans, don't like to think. The mere consideration of the possible material of an empty container of yogurt proves to be too taxing for certain individuals. "As a tax paying 'Merican, I've got the right to throw this here yogurt container wherever I see fit." It is almost as if we feel entitled to not think. (And by "we," I mean "they." However, I am attempting to avoid "they" statements, as I do not want to define "them.")

Society has taught us that if we need something, we should buy it. But what if we don't want to buy it, or can't buy it, as is becoming the case for more and more people? Instead of looking around and asking oneself, "How can use what I already have to get what I want?" most people will either wait until they can buy it, or decide they don't need it, after all. But we're more creative than that...

I have always had a visual image of my "ideal life" in my mind. This image has drastically changed throughout the years, and continues to tweak itself as time rolls out. It probably changes imperceptibly from second to second. Today, my ideal life involves bees, obviously; lots of all different types of hives all over property that I own. This same property will be home to many fruit trees and and vegetable gardens with tons of herbs, a pumpkin/melon patch, an expanse of wildflowers that morphs into its own conception of "beautiful." On the property, there will be an old house that needs a lot of work done. I'll live there with my true love, and we'll spend our days fixing the house, attending to our gardens and hives, providing fresh produce to our community, and trading what we have for what we don't have. Building the life that we want with our hands, essentially; self-sufficient and self-employed. The house will be filled books, laughter, and dogs. We'll grow our own indulgences, and invite friends and family to cook and/or enjoy them with us.

I could go on, but I'm realizing that the more detailed I get, the more I remove myself from society, and the more unrealistic my "ideal life" becomes. (It snowballs into commune territory.) And I'm not trying to make this unrealistic or unreachable: I am convinced, today, that this life is completely viable, and it is up to me to make the choices that will get me there.
The new bees, that will reside in my parents' backyard in Connecticut, will produce honey that I intend to sell. This will be my first entrepreneurial endeavor of any kind, except for the odd lemonade stand and the "Babysitters Club" I formed with 5 other girls one summer, inspired by the book series of the same title. (I was Claudia, the artistic, popular, half-Asian fashion plate who hid candy in fake books and dealt with her grandmother Mimi's stroke in the 7th book of the series, Claudia and Mean Janine.)

It is my first foray into semi self-employment, the initial step in what I hope will be a lifelong journey. I want to be judged on my product rather than my personality, whether the product is the honey from my bees or my words themselves. This first year will be more of an experiment than anything, since I'm learning absolutely everything as I go. It is exciting, strange, and unexpected. The unexpectedness makes it slightly intimidating, but I figure, what do I have to lose? Following this line of reasoning, I have also decided to pickle and sell my cukes this year, whose abundance last summer was overwhelming. (It was possible to subsist on cucumber soup* alone for a period of about 2 weeks.)

*Cukes, plain yogurt, mint, scallions, chicken broth, fresh garlic for spice, blended til smooth, chilled, with salt and pepper to taste. The most satisfying food/drink on a hot, humid day in July. Best when consumed outdoors, preferably near pool and/or beach.

Anyway, instead of buying jars to bottle these things, I want to use existing jars. Why buy new jars when I've got, you've got, we've got old jars right here? How much energy does it take to melt that glass into a different-looking jar?

A sweet, sweet reverie...

...honey housed in all different shapes and sizes of recycled jars and bottles, labeled by hand with little flowers drawn all over, maybe a recipe tag for something outrageous like honey milkshakes; each bottle unique; I'm dreaming up names: C's Bees'? Sweet C Honeybee? Strange varieties of pickled cucumber, like round, yellow, Lemon Cukes and heirloom White Wonders in spatial and tactile disharmony, each one distinct but strangely similar; yellow, green, brine and vinegar and garlic...

The sight of these things existing in reality would give me great pleasure. Photo shoot-worthy. Hopefully the future will unroll in such a fashion that my visions will materialize. If they do, or if they don't, at least I'll be writing about it.

Save the jars and bottles that you can imagine housing our future honey and/or pickles, if you'd like to contribute to this honey/pickle/heirloom tomato* venture. Of course, you know who you are.

*I have over 15 healthy-looking Cherokee Purple tomato plants that I grew from seed in my apartment. This weekend, they'll be making the move outdoors, to the quiet sanctuary of my parents' backyard (with the new bees!) Perhaps a small stand in a Farmer's Market? I think so.

On another sustainability note, its composting time! Now that the summertime bounty is beginning to crowd produce isles everywhere, we've decided to start a worm farm up here at the homestead in Wash Heights. You can buy worms (and compost) at the Greenmarket at the Community Compost:

They sell a "worm condo" to house the worms, but we're just using an old plastic box for storing clothes and stuff. Anything with a top that you can poke holes in is fine. It you're a gardener (or know one!) there's no reason you shouldn't compost: its easy, cheap, and natural. has great info. You can even bring your food scraps to places in your hood where someone is composting, even if you don't want to. Seriously, people want your food scraps badly.

There are tons of gorgeous herbs and tomato plants for sale right now... both of which grow well in containers if you're in the city (and have enough sun.) For those of you who have had the misfortune of never smelling the fresh, earthy scent of a healthy tomato plant, RUN to the nearest farmer's market and at LEAST stick your nose into its depths and inhale with gusto; even better to buy one and savor its scent, admire its stature, and devour its fruit all summer long.

Now is the time, you would-be, could-be gardeners: Make something grow!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cuckoo Bumblebees

Fort Tryon Park was abuzz with bumblebees today. I was lucky enough to catch this one on my camera. Look how adorable she is! She hovered noisily, then dipped down and squeezed her fat little self into a flower, gobbled up the nectar and pollen voraciously, then buzzed out, wiggled into another flower, and so on. When I realized that I didn't know much about bumblebees other than their cute factor, I figured this is information that a burgeoning beekeeper should know.

First of all, I thought they didn't sting. I realize now that I based this belief on my experience petting bumblebees, which is extensive (albeit extraordinary.) But they do sting, especially when they're defending their nest. The main difference between of bumblebees and honeybees is colony size; bumblebees usually have less than 50 members per colony, and we've all seen how many honeybees there can be. Plus, all except specially-created queens die before winter. The overwintering queens emerge in the spring and lay eggs conceived with the previous generation's drones. Honeybees, like humans, are forced to deal with the winter by mostly staying inside, eating, and cuddling together.
Bumblebees are skilled pollinators with funny names and cute little fuzzy stripes, so I love them too. Look at that gorgeous poppy pollen.... yum.Interestingly, there is a parasitic species of bumblebee called the Cuckoo bumblebee, who has lost the ability to collect pollen and thus support him/herself. There is no Queen Cuckoo. A female Cuckoo bumblebee will act like a normal bumblebee, foraging nectar and returning to the nest of the normal bees, an invader and impostor. Then, she enslaves the normal bumblebee queen and her entire colony, reproduces, and feeds the normal bees to her young. The Cuckoo Bumblebees have bigger sacks of venom and bigger mandibles, so there's really no defending yourself against the Cuckoos, if you're a bumblebee. The Cuckoo is the baddest bitch in the blossoms. Personally, I find it suspect that for the first few days of her insidious takeover plan, she feeds directly from the flowers. I mean, if she really wanted to she could just continue this practice, rather than brainwashing a bunch of other bees to do all her work for her and then eating them. It just seems a little over the top. For those of you who worry that my irreverently public insults about the Cuckoos will incite some kind of Cuckoo Assassination Mission against me, (and you know who you are,) don't worry. They are totally oblivious to humans and other mammals. Plus, I doubt they'd read a honeybee blog over a bumblebee blog, so I'm 90% safe.
Next time you see a cute little bumblebee waddling into a flower, ask yourself: Could this bee be Cuckoo? Or, could it be the slave bee of a Cuckoo master?
Although you can't see my shoes in the picture below, all of these photos were taken in bee camo. I could say that I didn't even realize it, but that'd be a lie. I did. What can I say? Bees make me happy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Beepot's Burden

My mother is one of the last Home Economics teachers in the country. Disappearing from school systems near and far, Home Ec is now called Family & Consumer Sciences, and now includes Sex Ed and Early Childhood Development. Mom's curriculum features detailed photos of real STDs, ("the kids are scared to death,") a life-like doll called "Baby Think It Over " that simulates infant behavior and records the number of times it is shaken, and of course, how to tell when your Crisco has gone rancid. (Smell it.)

It's really a shame that traditional Home Ec, sewing and cooking, is going the way of Wood Shop. Think of all those potential designers, chefs, and artisans that will never discover their callings. Or of those accountants, tax lawyers, and secretaries that could've lived a different lives, outside-the-box lives. Beekeeping certainly falls outside this box. I hadn't realized that "the box" existed at all, until I stood outside of it. Now that I realize that life outside is more interesting, more relaxing, and more whimsical than life inside, the idea of trying to hoist my weary self back into the overcrowded, ruthlessly judgmental, rush-rush-result box seems absurd.

A few weeks ago, my mom went on a teacher retreat to Old Sturbridge Village, Mass, a "living museum" of colonial New England. I went there for a 4th grade field trip. I remember thinking it was cool back then, but if I were to go today I'd be wearing bee-colored glasses, seeing the world through a lens of yellow and black. There must be a hive somewhere in Old Sturbridge Village. I mean, its supposedly a model of rural life at the turn of the 19th century and I would imagine (although I make no claims) that honey would be one of the only available sweeteners. If I could, I would watch colonial bees all day long, building their elaborate comb formations, spilling out of this tree or that outhouse, pollinating everything in sight. I wonder if they'd buzz differently, as if accented.

My mom didn't see any honeybees on her trip. Instead, she and her fellow teachers prepared a colonial-styled feast using the old methods of food preparation. They strung a whole chicken up above a roaring wood fire, and hung a big black pot beneath it to catch the fats and juices. They hand-mashed potatoes and churned butter. For dessert, they made a gingery, clove-scented spice cake and whipped fresh cream to put on top. The meal was delicious, according to my mom. And she's a Home Ec teacher, so she should know.

This past weekend my mom brought me a present she'd bought in the Old Sturbridge Village gift shop: a bee teapot! (Beepot?!?!?) How quaint!
Seems innocent enough, right?

Wrong. 20 years of maternal guilt brewed inside this teapot. According to my mother, before my school trip to Old Sturbridge Village she gave me money to buy something at the gift shop. I bought a beautiful geode and gave it to her. Now, my mom claims that she did not dislike the geode. However, in her thanks she reminded me that she'd given me the money to buy something for myself, as in, "You shouldn't have!" To my sensitive, 8-year-old ears, this sounded like rejection. Like, "Take your stupid rock, kid." I cried, she profusely apologized, and, unknown to me, carried this shameful burden for two decades. Until this teapot.

Truthfully, I don't remember the geode brouhaha. I was a mercurial child; my "episodes" blend together in memories. I tended to take every possible emotion to the Nth degree; happiness was elation, but sadness was tragedy. It doesn't surprise me that my mom remembered the geode, even though it had slipped into the annals of the past for me, probably between another forgotten geode and a chunk of wood from the Petrified Forest.
I do have one viscerally vivid maternal rejection memory. I went through an artistic phase in which I would scribble hard and circular in one color crayon, and call it a Monster. Although I was capable of drawing actual things, such as flowers and (admittedly distorted) people in my family, my Monster period was a time for me to redefine my conception of "art," much like the abstract expressionist artists. Today, I would describe my Monsters as Pollock-like in production. They required intense strength, and the kind of brutal concentration that is only achieved by sticking one's tongue out of one's mouth and biting it. My mom is not an Art teacher, and therefore did not recognize my unique creative perspective. I know this because I happened to be the same exact height as the garbage can, which shot open for just long enough for me to notice a stack of original Monsters partially obscured by dirty trash-things. I remember the shock that reverberated through my 5 year old body. I thought, This is the Picture Graveyard. Suddenly, I realized that the Monsters only accounted for a few of the fallen pictures. Dozens and dozens of other lovingly drawn pictures had met the same fate, never to be seen again. As I recalled the casualties, tears welled up in my eyes... they were gone and I could never get them back. Drawing them again, (mom's desperate suggestion,) just wasn't the same. I couldn't recreate the exact same Monster. They were one-of-a-kind, and they were gone.

I've never forgiven my mother. (JUST KIDDING MOM! Happy Belated April Fools/Mothers Day!!)

No, here's the truth: my mom is going to become my assistant beekeeper this summer! (Surprise again, mom!) My parents are letting me put some hives in their backyard in CT, and I pick up two 3-pound boxes of Italian honeybees in Massachusetts on Saturday! I'm looking forward to, among other things, 1) Naming my queens, 2) Comparing the city bees to the country bees and fabricating far flung, fanciful facts about city life and country life, 3) Painting my boxes purple and yellow (like pansies.) I've also decided to try some new things, which I'll elaborate upon when photographs of them materialize.

Here's an apt quote from Paul Bowles, one of my favorite authors:

One never took the time to savor the details; one said; another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there would never be a return, another time.

... and also that each Monster is unique unto itself.

Well, I added that last part myself.

In the meantime, I'll be preparing for my new bees, caring for the Spies and Secret Service, taking photos of things that tickle my fancy, and existing in my magical world outside the box.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunny Day in May

On Thursday night around 10pm, I heard loud, male voices in conversation outside our door. I could imagine all sorts of unwanted situations. I pictured burglars in black-and-white striped PJs sliding in flat against the walls of our apartment, all tiptoes and eye masks and five o’clock shadows, trying to steal my little plants. I recalled a time in college when it was not unusual for peers to drunkenly break into the houses of strangers and fall asleep; one guy smashed a window in the tiny post office of our small, upstate NY college town and fell asleep on the floor. (Felony charges were dropped.) This all seemed innocent enough at the time. However, at this point in my life, the idea of someone stumbling in to my home—whether a frat boy or a homeless wino—is unsettling. I was so unsettled that I said, “We should lock the doors, any weirdo could just walk right in,” and subsequently fell asleep immediately, without locking the doors, another point for The Lazy Team.

Friday morning, I woke up, made my usual 6 cups of coffee and checked on my plants. Recently, a big gardening project has begun behind our building. I decided to photograph some of my little dudes against the backdrop of the green goings-on. I marveled at the sight if my Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato plants, small but striving toward their larger cousins in a cooler-like greenhouse out back.

Will the leaves be red? Or purple? Purple would be awesome.

The fruit of my Lemon Cukes will grow to look like shiny yellow tennis balls, but will share the same crisp, undeniable crunch as the Green Uncle of their surname, the pristine Cucumber. (As in “cool as a…”) For now, they look like newborn bearded dragons.

I ran out of half-and-half for my third (and most important) cup of coffee, so I slid on some flops and glided out the door.

The fluorescent orange was shocking enough to draw my eyes to the sticker on our neighbor’s door. It spanned the lock, door, and the cracked doorframe, Light always crept through that door’s defects; the lights inside were clearly left on. It proclaimed that the apartment was the site of an official Police Investigation Site of the 34th Precinct. Our neighbor, a 40-something single mom with an 11-year-old son, had died that night. The hubbub in the hallway must have been the aftermath.

At the mailboxes, an upstairs neighbor dazedly listed all of her memories of the woman, as if I were a witness to her verbal recognition the woman’s existence: I saw her riding a bike with her son last week, yesterday she was on the street, talking on her cell phone, looking healthy.

I remembered my own interactions with the woman. On Halloween, she dressed meticulously as a Pirate-Barmaid, and seemed to be returning home after taking her blonde son and his chubby little friend trick-or-treating. The boys, who could hardly be considered “costumed” but for the blue paint sprayed indiscriminately over faces, heads, and sweat suits, ran ahead to the building cackling like little ghosts. I sat on the stoop, keyless, watching her hobble up the street in her fitted bodice, fishnets, and seriously uncomfortable-looking pirate boots. She acknowledged me with a nod and held open the door of the vestibule. The very nanosecond I crossed the outdoor-indoor threshold, noxious-smelling fumes assaulted my nostrils. The boys snorted and wailed hysterically. She cupped her hand over her mouth and nose as she fumbled for her keys, reprimanded the boys, apologized to me for their behavior, and unlocked the door. The boys ran up the stairs and stood at top of the landing, their coltish energy only serving to highlight her resigned exhaustion.

I chose not to share this tidbit with the upstairs neighbor, and instead bemoaned the grim uncertainty of the boy’s fate. We proceeded to introduce ourselves formally, awkwardly laughed that this was a terrible way to meet, agreed that it was a horrible, strange thing to happen, and parted ways.

I was shaken when I returned to my side of the wall. Tragedy had unfolded just steps away from me, and I didn’t even know it. What I was doing when she was dying? I wanted to know how it happened, and vividly envisioned several potential scenarios while simultaneously trying to stop myself unsuccessfully. Bad thoughts can’t be willed away without replacing them with better ones.

For better thoughts, I walk out my door, glanced at the ominous orange sticker, and stride into the May sunshine.

Instead of frequenting the dependably breathtaking Ft. Tryon, I walk toward the Hudson and head South. I figure that I’ll walk until something turns me around.

The George Washington Bridge is truly majestic. It looks like the drawbridge to a castle in the sky.

Despite its stature, I find myself drawn to its under workings, and hug its graceful curve.

Suddenly, an image registers. Déjà vu. It is as if I’ve dreamt of this spot, as if I’ve been here before. The memory is strongly visual: the sight of the gravelly hills beneath the bridge evokes a vision of myself, young and alone, in the very spot. A sensation both vague and familiar creeps over me. This is the sight:

I happen upon some secret places.

Who's responsible for the fake plastic gopher carrying a pocketbook in this otherwise neglected space? I'd like to shake the wo/man's hand.

I call this one “Pairs:”

Basking in tranquility and late afternoon sunshine:

I think of my neighbor’s blonde son. I wonder if he will forever associate sunny days in May with loss.

I figure the sun is strong enough to bleach any stain.

My replacement thought:
How sad to die and miss such a beautiful day.

I turn around.