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Stanley Tarantella

It’s the annual mating time for Tarantulas up here on Big Rock Candy Mountain and the surrounding areas, and everywhere you go, you see tarantulas, dozens of them, crossing the road. Presumably to get to the females, somewhere on the other side. It happens every October here in the Southwestern United States, and only the males migrate, sometimes as far as 50 miles away from their ancestral grounds.

Though large, and packing a painful bite, tarantulas actually have very weak venom, and are considered harmless to humans. Named after a species of wolf spider  — the tarantula — found in Taranta, Apulia, Southern Italy, their bites were originally considered highly dangerous, inducing an hysterical condition known as “tarantism,” which eventually became known as “tarantella.”

The Tarantella evolved into a into a frenzied dance that could sometimes last as long as an entire day. The  manic dance was considered an “emergency exorcism” which expelled the poison, thus saving the victim of the spider’s bite. Ancient Greeks mention the bites and the dance which its victims performed when the appropriate music was played, claiming the dance  cured victims of the spiders’ toxic venom. The Romans banned the Tarantella, considering it a “cult dance of Dionysius.”

Sometimes, the dance is performed by groups, being considered a traditional Italian folk dance.

For some unknown reason, the Tarantella also evolved into a courtship dance — perhaps there are annual fall migrations of the male spiders in Southern Italy, too — though this form of the dance, despite being fast and vigorous like the exorcising version, is more sophisticated, with complicated, predetermined steps. This courtship dance also seems to have developed in Apulia, Italy; it is traditionally accompanied by mandolins, guitars, accordions, and tambourines.

The fairy Godmother’s song, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella (1950) is a Tarantella, but I’m guessing it’s more of a presumptive courtship dance rather than an exorcism, since the Fairy Godmother is sending Cinderella to the ball to find a husband in Prince Charming, and not to be exorcised while wearing glass slippers.

The Tarantella also developed into a dance between a single dancer and a drummer, in which each tried to go faster and more intricately, trying the tire the other one out. Last man standing was the winner, I suppose.

Composers like Chopin, Liszst, Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Rossinni all composed Tarantella movements into some of their pieces — or wrote entire pieces called Tarantellas — with the fast, staccato, 6/8 movement of the southern Italian dances.

(When I was an adult piano student — not a very good one, I admit — I had to learn a piece of music with a Tarantella. It gave me a devil of a time until the day I drank a couple gallons of iced tea before my lesson. To my amazement — and to that of my teacher — my fingers actually moved almost fast enough to play the movement correctly. I never told her about the incredible amount of caffeine in my system that day, preferring, I confess, to allow her to believe I was improving.)

But each year when I see the annual migration of the tarantulas across the roads here in New Mexico, and find countless tarantulas prowling across our yard on Big Rock Candy Mountain, it’s not the exorcism ritual, the courtship dance, Cinderella, or classical composers that come to mind. It’s Stanley, my little brother’s pet tarantula when we were kids.

Avicularia versicolor Antilles pinktoe tarantula, captive-0413 low res

My parents wouldn’t let us have pets, but, without their permission, my younger brother Chip, saved up his allowance and bought himself a pet tarantula — complete with aquarium — and named him “Stanley.” (Chip’s reasoning, as he explained to my outraged parents, was that “cats” and “dogs” were pets; fish, snakes, mice, and tarantulas, all of whom live in aquariums, were not. To this day, I have no idea how he got away with that “logic”.)

At first, everyone in the house was terrified of Stanley, but Chip, who read incessantly about tarantulas, and who hunted in the backyard for insects for Stanley’s meals, constantly insisted that Stanley was harmless and was, in fact, quite intelligent.

First, unbeknownst to my parents, Chip began to “train” Stanley by letting him out of his aquarium and “teaching him” to walk around the bedroom by dragging a twig with a dead fly taped on it: Stanley obediently followed, and was rewarded with the fly.

Next, Chip taught Stanley how to sit on his shoulder. At first, of course, Stanley wanted to walk over Chip’s neck, head, and arm, but with enough flies and grasshoppers, Stanley eventually learned to sit patiently on Chip’s shoulder as he did his homework. Chip and his friends thought it was pretty darned cool, and so did the rest of us kids. We started to like Stanley. A lot.

When our parents were out — at work, at the grocery, or just in the yard — Chip started to let Stanley out of the bedroom. Stanley seemed very excited. He quickly learned to navigate his way down the hallway to the kitchen — one of his favorite spots in the house since it had a nice window above the sink where the early morning sun warmed Stanley as he napped there.

The first time my mother was putting away groceries and saw Stanley lying on the kitchen counter watching her, she screamed so loudly that everyone in the house came running to the kitchen. Everyone except Stanley, who’d jumped off the counter and high-tailed it back down the hallway, up the side of the dresser, and back into his open glass aquarium: Chip found Stanley hiding under the tree branch and leaves inside.

Pretty smart little guy, that Stanley. Everyone else in the house ran and hid when my mom screamed, too.

mygales

My favorite memory of Stanley, however, is of him sitting on my shoulder in the living room, reading with me. I think Chip first put Stanley on the back of the chair where I was sitting to scare me. But Stanley, who’d been trained to sit on Chip’s shoulder, simply climbed onto my shoulder, sat there a few seconds, then brushed by bare neck with one of his furry legs. I probably jumped the first time, but not enough to scare Stanley, because he remained sitting there.

“Hi, Stanley,” I said, and went back to reading my book.

Chip, disappointed at my reaction, gave Stanley a cricket as a reward for getting up on my shoulder, then took him off to try to scare someone else. (It should be noted here that Chip never put Stanley on my mother’s chair or shoulder: she would have killed Stanley in an instant, and we all knew it.)

After a while, Stanley just came down the hallway every evening to the living room, crawled up the chair onto my shoulder, and read with me. Chip got a bit jealous, but still gave me a few crickets or flies with which to reward Stanley while we read together. It became our nightly ritual.

Stanley learned to recognize my mother’s feet or her voice or her smell or something: he would cross to the other side of the hallway or the room whenever he saw her coming. Everyone else in the house either tolerated him or actually liked him. My brother’s friends thought Stanley was the coolest thing on the planet. Chip adored him. I’m pretty sure Stanley adored Chip, too.

I wish I could say that Stanley lived a long and happy life, dying of old age, but my brother Chip made a terrible mistake one day. Without realizing that wasps are one of the few natural enemies of tarantulas — because they can sting a tarantula between their scale-like skin, and lay eggs which hatch and eat the tarantulas’ innards, killing the tarantula in the process — my brother caught a wasp, which he thought was dead (it was only stunned) and would make a good meal (because it was so large).

The wasp stung Stanley, laid her eggs, and Stanley sickened and died.

Chip was heart-broken. He wept at Stanley’s funeral, which all us siblings and the neighborhood kids attended.

Reading was never the same after that. I missed Stanley. He was a sweetheart. So every year, when I see all the tarantulas making their annual mating migration here in the Southwest, I think of Stanley, and hope he’s in a heaven full of green grass, warm sunshine, and crickets, which were his favorite meal.

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After Monsoons on Big Rock Candy Mountain

Though we live in the middle of the desert, we live in what’s called the “high desert,” which means that there are lots of trees: pinon and juniper;

Juniper, Cholla, and wildflowers in our yard, after 2 months of monsoons

cactus: prickly pear and cholla (pronounced choy-uh);

little Cholla (knee-high)

Cholla, almost 6 ft tall, about 5 ft wide

Cholla and Piñon growing together at the edge of an arroyo

and, if there are regular monsoon seasons or enough rain, as in this monsoon season, which broke a 7-year drought, wildflowers.

wildflowers by the barbed-wife fence and rock wall next to our yard

wildflowers just outside the gate

wildflowers just outside the fence

The monsoons, with the floods running down from the mountaintop, created an arroyo across our yard long ago (the original owner built a walking bridge over the 8-10 foot deep ravine, which is filled with rushing water during the rains: every year that there are monsoons, people die in the arroyos, trying to cool off in the waters but getting carried away & dragged under the powerful floods).

arroyo running across our property, 8-10 ft deep, with steep sides pocked by rattlesnake dens

Even with the monsoons, the “low desert” contains nothing but sand, rock, and rolling sagebrush (“tumbling sage,” they call it out here), which gets tangled up in your drive shaft and around your axles if you drive over it since some of them are several feet in circumference. So, compared to the low desert, the high desert can be quite lovely during monsoon season.

This morning, on my walk with SadieDoggie, I took some photos to share with all of you who don’t live on Big Rock Candy Mountain. Since the state has been in a drought for the last 7 years, this is the loveliest the Mountain has looked since we moved here.

wildflowers, Juniper, & Piñon in our yard

We’re at 8500 feet above sea-level; the top of the mountain behind us is 9500 feet.

the final 1000 feet of the mountain, green after two months of monsoons

We’re the last house on the mountain: there are only 4 or 5 up here because there are no wells: all the water comes from rain which runs off the roofs into cisterns which are plumbed into the houses; if there’s no rain, the water has to be hauled in. Lots of people don’t last long up here: they leave after only living up here a few months. Especially if there have been years of drought.

The top of the mountain, with Cholla, Juniper, and barbed wire fence in foreground

Since we moved here, Big Rock Candy Mountain has never looked as lovely as it does this year. There aren’t as many wildflowers as there were when we first looked at the property, but that was long ago, when there was a good monsoon season, and this mountain didn’t even look like it was in the middle of a desert.

wildflowers in the yard

Gotta run: SadieDoggie’s outside, barking her “snake-bark,” which means she’s run across a rattlesnake, which are rampant up here, and though she’s been vaccinated, we do not want her to get bitten since the anti-venom shot costs between $1,000-3,000, and since it’s Sunday, our vet’s not open, so we’d have to drive over two hours to the nearest emergency veterinary clinic. I doubt she’d survive the trip, even with the rattlesnake vaccine.

Later, my Lovelies… Enjoy the view, albeit vicariously.

And because so many people ask where “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is — next to the “lemonade springs where the bluebird sings,” I’ve included this version of the Depression-era American folk-song — made popular by Burl Ives — most lately from the Cohen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou, and sung here in 1942 by Harry McClintock (complete with lyrics).


(Unfortunately, Burl died before the popularity of YouTube, so there are no videos of his classic take on this wonderful song.)

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Lions and Tigers and Liebsters, Oh, My!

I’ve been nominated for the Liebster Award by Seumas Gallacher, a rowdy Scot who loves to wear kilts and annoy his friends, especially authors who are new bloggers, like John Dolan and me. Apparently, the Liebster Award is to introduce interesting blogs to your readers. It has a few rules, however, which follow the photo. I notice the many blogger-nominees are using the green award picture, but I prefer the pink & red. I’m a girl: I like those colors.

Here are the rules:
  • When you receive the award, you post 11 random facts about yourself and answer the 11 questions asked by the person who nominated you. (Have I received it yet? Perhaps the nomination is the same as receiving it. I’ll bet Hollywood wishes the Oscars operated like that.)
  • Pass the award onto 11 other bloggers with fewer than 200 followers (while making sure you notify the blogger that you nominated them.) If you can’t think of 11, do as many as you can ( or check out Bloggers  for some interesting people. Sign up while you’re they’re, too [no, I didn’t get a kickback for writing that]).
  • You write up 11 NEW questions directed towards YOUR nominees. (Serious, amusing, existential – your choice: they have to answer or no Liebster for them.)
  • You are not allowed to nominate the blog who nominated your own blog. (That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?)
  • You paste the award picture into your blog. (You can Google the image, there are plenty of them; I’ve included a selection in this post.)

Eleven Random Facts About Myself

1. I have three tattoos: an OM on my left shoulder, an ALEPH on my right, both done on my 47th birthday; a Star of David within the Buddhist Circle of Chakras is on the back of my left wrist. All three are spiritually significant to me as a writer.

2. I pierced my nose myself, with ear-piercing studs, 3 times, for my 48th birthday. I did 3 piercings instead of the traditional 1 because I was always called “Big Nose” as a kid (before my face fit my nose) so I thought I had plenty of “canvas” to work with. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who find my nose-rings sexy.

3. Sometimes, I wear diamond studs in my nose, but they often confuse and stress people who see them and ask “Why are you wearing diamonds in your nose?” because I always tell them, “It’s a political/socio-economic statement.” Their expressions say “Duh?”

4. I had to re-learn how to blow my nose once it was pierced because I kept tearing the nose-rings out. I did not have to learn to blow my nose in a new way after I got my ears pierced at 21.

5. My BF and I have rescued cats during our entire relationship (going on 19 years) and currently we have seven, who are all incredibly spoiled and rule the house like tyrants. They absolutely never listen to me unless I’m saying the word “Breakfast” and they hear plates.

6. We also have SadieDoggie, who was raised with cats and thus believes that she, too, is a cat: in six years, we have never given her a bath. She cleans herself just like a cat, even her paws and her face. She makes vets nervous because she is a cat in a 55-pound doggie body. She is the only dog on the planet that I have ever even liked, let alone loved. Probably because she acts like a cat.

7. I love stilettos, especially red ones, and my favorite pair is a toss-up between the 6-inch python-print (which make me about 6’2″) and the sparkly Dorothy-Wizard-of-Oz with black-and-white-striped heels (to represent the stockings of the Wicked Witch of the East upon whom Dorothy’s house lands).

8. I have a Snow White watch, which I adore, and never wear any other (for reasons posted in an earlier blog of mine).

9. I’m quite a few years older than I look: I’m retired from 30+ years of teaching World Literature and Creative Writing as a University Professor.

10. I write all my books in longhand with fountain pens, in beautiful journals. I grew up learning to write with fountain pens (ballpoints weren’t invented till I was 12) and since the two types of pens are held differently while writing, I simply cannot write comfortably with anything but a fountain pen. I have an entire collection of lovely pens.

11. I would’ve called this award “Liebeleh”, using the Yiddish instead of the German. Because.

My Nominee’s 11 Questions for Me

1. What’s your earliest recollection of anything?

Something too gruesome and horrifying to be revealed in a blog. Sorry. Must take the 5th on this.
2. How old were you when you were informed that Mister Clause may not be for real? and how did you take it?

2 or 3, I’m guessing, since my parents didn’t pull any punches, metaphorically or literally. Since I already didn’t believe in God by then, I don’t remember caring much whether Mr. Clause existed (besides, he never brought me anything I wanted, the Grinch).
3. What was the first book that you absolutely hated?  
I’ve never hated a book. I love books. They saved me. I adore all books simply on principle. Even the ones whose stories bore me to tears.
4. Money or Love?
Depends on what I have to give in return.
5. Fantasy holiday destination?
Paris. Actually, I want to live there.
6. First kiss?
Unremarkable.
7. Favorite funny person?
Christopher Walken.
8. What kind of music, if any, makes you cry?
Anything by Mozart or Beethoven. And some really old folk songs, like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Danny Boy.”
9. If you could remove any three letters from the alphabet, what would they be, and why?
X, because nobody pronounces it right when it’s at the beginning of a word. O because it looks silly. Q, because it’s always dragging U around after it, and nobody knows why, and U’s probably pretty tired of it by now.
10. Favorite animal/pet?
Cats. All of mine.
11. If you had to change your first name, what would you change it to?
I already changed it, to Alexandria. I didn’t like the name my parents gave me (and I despised their illiterate Appalachian pronunciation), and I only used a nickname in high school because I wasn’t of the legal age to change my first name. I fell in love with the name “Alexandria” after reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet at 17. 
My Eleven Questions for My Nominees 
1. If you could live anywhere in the world you wanted, where would you live and why?
2. If you could be as tall or short as you wanted, how tall or short would you be?
3. Films or books?
4. Men or women?
5. Cats or dogs?
6. If you could be fluent in any language other than your native one, which would it be?
7. Besides blogging, what is your favorite activity?
8. What ethnic food or dish is your favorite?
9. Who is your favorite actor and his/her best role?
10. Who is your favorite artist and his/her best work?
11. Who is your favorite author and his/her best work?
And My Eleven Nominees Are… <Drumroll… Opens Envelope…>
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