Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Placki Kartofane

Potato Pancakes

8 large potatoes, peeled , cut up and grated
1 large onion cut up and grated
1 egg
3 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup bacon drippings

The book is a gift from the high school library staff to my mother at her retirement after 43 years as an English teacher. Inside the front cover is an affirmation- May you have many years of health,happiness and time to try every recipe in this book.
My cooking skills are a direct result of my mother's inability to cook. An early memory is my mother standing at the stove struggling with Mac n' Cheese. I was encouraged by my Polish foster parents to cook. Both were artists, each in their own way. I remember Ma and Pa bragging that as soon as I was tall enough to reach the stove with the aid of a stool, I learned to fix eggs. I give you the basic recipe so the accomplished chefs out there reading this drivel will not blame me when something goes horribly wrong. When the house is filled with smoke, the kitchen buried in dirty dishes and the dog won't eat what you drop on the floor.

I follow Dawn out to the garage. She's on her way to work and I'm going to get potatoes stored in the soap studio. The thermometer on the garage reads below zero. The LED thermometer in the soap studio reads in the thirties. Cursing ensues. I choose four small russet potatoes. Russets are a drier potato, used locally for making Lefse. I wash the potatoes, but I don't peel and cut them up. There are vitamins in the peel. I grate until the spuds are dangerous small nubs. Then I peel four small onions and slice them. We have a Pampered Chef vegetable chopper. I pound away at the chopper until the onion slices are reduced to a fine mess, saving my knuckles. If you forget to toss the onion peels before putting coffee in the microwave, you'll have the wind from the microwave fan blowing skins across the counter. To the potato/onion mix I add two eggs. They're pullet eggs. The shells are as tough as pigskin. I invariably drop a shell into the mix. More cursing. Next, I add two tablespoons of unbleached flour. You may choose whole wheat or any one of a dozen other kinds of flour. I grabbed the bag in first bag in the front of the cabinet.
Here's where a deranged cook goes astray. The fire department hauls him away to Mystic Acres on a gurney. Forget the salt despite the capital "S" in the recipe. In the instructions, the description of salt is that of a seasoning. Mistrusting a 1968 cookbook, I consult Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook. He adds baking soda. Me, I add baking powder. The rationale-fluffy potato pancakes. Bacon drippings? My step dad says they'd save the tail from a butchered hog to grease the skillet. Foregoing a heart attack at age 59 like my Dad, I pour two tablespoons of Pomace oil into a stainless steel skillet. Pomace oil is a cheaper version of olive oil made from leftover crushed olives ( I leave it to you to get the detailed description). I choose stainless steel because it heats faster. Cast iron is better.
The instructions say to cook the pancake at high heat after you drop three dollops in the pan and flatten them. I drop two dollops into a heap and flatten the heap. There is no room for another pancake. Forget the high heat, too. Claibourne says to use bacon fat OR butter. At position "2" out of seven settings on my gas stove, the living room has a purple haze wafting across the room. I have not been smoking.
My recipe makes four large pancakes and one medium sized cake. The original recipe says, ..."serves six. Serve with mushrooms and salad ." I forage in the basement for an '05 half pint of apple butter. People told me it tastes more like apple sauce. You may want to garnish with something less than 3 years old.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oh, So What!

I wrestle with the Devil. The personal supreme spirit of evil , according to Merriam-Webster. Twenty years ago a person hands me a business card. We're in a bar. I do not know the person nor do I remember why he handed me the card. Perhaps, I had bored him to death. It was a white embossed card with only these words: Oh so what who gives a s**t. I held onto the card until it was tattered and then gave it away to someone who bored me to tears. I've gone from boredom to the blahs. Then, sick of winter is followed by really tired of bitter cold, cabin fever, manic depression, winter weary and now, Oh so what...It could only be followed by, Why Bother!

Even cheerful Marion at the grocery store who clucks whenever she sees me, asks the same question; Have you been subbing much? and finally scrunches up her face in her red pinched way and bemoans; I'm tired of winter. The feeling gets in the way of writing. Then a bright light, like the LED trouble lights I've been buying for the 82 year old librarian in Readstown-bent from an automobile accident 30 years ago, fingers curled from arthritis; Write what you know. Blame it partially on Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Love In The Time Of Cholera , a crazy juxtaposition, is filled with lovely descriptions, haunting metaphors, unreal images -every other line could be the title of a book or short story. "...Unfaithful but never disloyal." "She had a legendary career as a courtesan who deserved her nom de guerre, "Our Lady of Everybody." ..."All that remained of her on the moonlit roofs was a fluttered farewell with a white handkerchief like a solitary sad dove on the horizon." Write what you know.

I know a kitchen in an old remolded schoolhouse. I know the farm folks were short on cash. Vernon County is second only to its neighboring county for being the lowest in per capita income . Cheap paneling abounds. Z-brick, a fancy substitute for real brick lines the walls above the splash block of the counter. Why in heavens name would anyone use Z-Brick in a kitchen. The abrasive surface is impossible to clean. The final blow- a textured plaster over cellulose ceiling tiles. Again, impossible to clean. !@#$ farmers.

The Pooch is out of cat treats. He's riding high on our list of heroes when he catches a mouse in the kitchen. I surmise that he found the fat, furry rodent in the basement. Then again, there are two holes in the plywood over studs behind the cabinets. There's a wire for the range hood jutting out from the wall. The Pooch investigates the wire nuts on the white cable sticking out of the wall.He looks up at the hole in the corner between the ceiling and sidewall. Mice highways. A labyrinth of tunnels. A trip to the grocery is part of a careful system of stops from here to the small town 18 miles away.

First, to the library to deliver LED trouble lights. I chuckle, thinking that the librarian is putting a little light into every one's life at the darkest time of the year. She's very clever and a real pistol at 82. Janie tells me, " I got a clean bill of health from the doctor." She describes various tests including a bone density test. "I've got the bones of a 50 year old,"she says. "Hmmm, hmmm," she hums constantly and writes me a check for five rechargeable lights and asks me to keep an eye out for DVD movies for the library. After the grocery store, I head toward Richland Center and the Amish. There are a few missing dimensions on the cabinet plans.

I'd stopped at the farm before I left for town. Monday is laundry day and the daughters are busy sewing and ironing. The Mrs. has socks hanging outside and more laundry on the door of the wood kitchen stove. I ask, " When are you making bread again?" She looks at the clothes in the oven and jokes about them. "Friday," she says. I ask for one white and one brown. The Mr. is off butchering a cow. He'll be back by 4 PM. When I return, Titus is driving a creaking iron wheeled wagon. In the wood sided wagon is a tarp and a meat saw. "Got any hamburger?" I ask. He says his brothers have all the meat. He gets the hide which he will sell. Although the winds is biting, he's dressed in a thin denim coat and straw hat. No gloves and rubber boots. We go inside to check dimensions. The youngest daughter is at the vinyl covered table arranging pictures of animals. I point out a missing dimension on a side cabinet. The plans for my cabinets are in the wood shop, but to save Titus another trip outside, I tell him,"I'll be back on Friday for bread." I write him a note. Check dimensions of cabinet on left side of refrigerator. I recount an episode from my teaching days about written excuses and cite an example from Frank McCourt who wrote of his days as a teacher in NYC. Frank turned a drawer full of thirty year old excuses inherited from a retired teacher into a writing lesson. The most memorable challenge: Write an excuse for Hitler. Then, I remind Titus I'll be back at the end of the week and drive off to give the Pooch his treats.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dead Slow

from 27 February 2006

Please Note: Differences in font and font size are problems with translation from Microsoft Word to this excerpt. I did not intend to create a separate style in the first paragraph. In trying to edit the HTML it was so complex, I gave up.

“Twenty one ounces is too much beer for a dwarf,” the novel says. John Irving’s Son of a Circus. No that’s not correct. A Son of the Circus. I have to go back to check the title. Drink another sip of coffee. The Indian names are confusing. I have difficulty with them because there’s father and son. Which Duwalla is he talking about? The routine is the same. I have another book to accompany me during the day. Fondle it during the light hours. Take it to bed with me. Carry it downstairs in the morning. Vampires, East Indian doctors, Australian Bushmen. Some are more precious. I dole the words out.

I toss a paper bag from the hardware store down the steps to the basement. There’s a smell of wood smoke. Should I check it out? Too lazy. I close the back door Dawn left open and turn off the outside light. I left Frank McCourt in the bathroom. He sits on top of a J.C. Penny’s catalog, the Farmer's Almanac and Newsweek. I turn another two pages of Teacher Man.

Dead slow is written on a sign at the entrance to the exclusive Duckworth Club. They install speed bumps. Dr. Duwalla- I have changed his name because I can neither remember the word nor spell the same-sits at a table sipping a Kingfisher beer. I sip my coffee thinking about the speed bumps on Kickapoo Center Lane. Each time Jeff comes thru with the plow, he creates another mound of gravel and snow when he backs up near the end of our dead end lane. He turns into the drive to the barn which is really a shed, knocks over a sign and drives out. If the snow is deep, he’ll make another pass on his way out. If it’s icy, he’ll hit the button to the sand spreader. The speed bumps turn into a solid mass of ice.

I took the weekend off. Instead of a 4:45 wake up, I’m out of bed at first light. If I didn’t have to pee, I’d sleep longer. Taking the weekend off means, I will not work on any project that fits into a definition of work. I will not fill gaps at the roof of the shed with foam insulation. I will not cut fiberglass to seal the drafts around the doors. I will not stack and load firewood. I refuse to begin another table or bench. I put off repair to the redwood table sitting in the barn, which is actually a shed. There’s a fine line of distinction when I begin painting the Japanese letters which I am going to glue onto my wood dividing screen. The screen is work. The letters are fun. I cut grooves into pieces of pine molding and insert a square piece of Luan in each of the three squares. After a few mindless steps, I dribble plaster on a traced outline of the Japanese words, TRUTH, Prosperity and Retreat. The words are in maroon, the frames black. I can’t sell these individually because they take so much time. If I fine-tune the process, I’ll get bored after the first eight hundred. Hobby Lobby sells versions of double happiness for $6.95. I choose words that are so complex I cannot make a simple wood cutout.

Next, I begin constructing a shallow nicho for a painted cross which hangs in our upstairs hallway. I see it when I make the beds. At night, I bump into it on my way to the bathroom. There’s an arc on the wall below the cross from the black paint on the backside. After consulting my design expert, I cut eight-inch wide, weathered Ponderosa Pine boards I carried with us from Arizona. Around the edge of this large flat cross, I make a 1 ½ inch molding. Before I shut down the workshop for the night and help Dawn make a venison jerky pizza, I tape the molding and stain the inside edge red mahogany. While the pizza is baking, I sneak back into the workshop to remove the tape. No matter how much I burnish the tape, there’s always some seepage under the blue scotch tape. Oh, well, it’s part of my process. Surprises in every project. The Japanese letter plaques are slightly warped. Parts of the wood squares will not touch the surface of the screen. I wonder about glue. The Luan screen inserts are supposed to be moisture resistant. Small bubbles appear on one section. Thus ends this dream of simple Japanese screens.

The elder Dr. Duwalla is an atheist. He opines against Gandhi. Images of Christ on the cross should be outlawed as barbaric symbols. He thinks all religions are monsters. He hates the French, priests and Catholics. I take an outsiders view of the piece I’m working on. “Happy” the man who lives down the road and works as partner for the organic farmers, looks at me with suspicion. “What’s with all the crosses?” he asks when he and his partner James come to pick up an old antique bathtub I gifted the farmers. The word weird” “bizarre” and “strange” light up his face like a neon signboard. I think of the image of him drinking flaming shots of Absinthe in the kitchen of the farmhouse. He and his partner smuggle the illegal liquor from Amsterdam. Then there’s the sight (and smell) of a bus ride to their hotel. A street person used a small metal box next to a bridge overpass as a lavatory. Happy sits on the box after walking all over Amsterdam. He notices some mud on his pants. Only after vigorously smearing the mud across the cuffs does he realize: this is feces. Japanese tourists move away from him on the bus. Ah, what is weird, then? I ask.

Years ago, I asked Dawn to paint a version of the crucifixion on a cross. The wood cross is painted a rust red. The surface is a pastel shade of rust. The image of Christ is fuzzy, ethereal and mystical. The image in my mind is translated onto the cross with perfection. It’s one of three favorites. The second is a carton image of sheep jumping on the horizontal part of an antique white cross. On the reverse side of the cross, I wrote the entire words of a black spiritual, called, “Sheep, Sheep don’t know the road.” The song comes from a CD called the Spiritual Tourist. A man chronicles a journey in song. Each song tells of a mystical experience. The liner notes tell of a wonderful luminous light in the windows of this Tennessee church when the choir begins singing. The elder Duwalla is a shallow man. I’m entranced by the art value of the cross. I try not to let the Duwallas ruin my thrill with their cynicism.

Next: Danger lurks in the aisles of Menards.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


um*brage n 1:shade 2:resentment, offense(take~at a remark)
"I'm not here to make friends.

I'm repeating a famous quote from the Bulldog. He is a friend(I use the word loosely) I worked along side of for over a year. He sends me a story about a midget( respectfully:a little person) who wants to buy a horse. I can't and won't repeat the story because many people would take umbrage when the little person asks the owner if he can see the horse trot. I laughed. I laughed and laughed.

Surfing blogs, I come across a sad comment by a woman who's images of women breast feeding were removed. The site managers removed them because people took offense.

Nervous Nellies , I call them. I refrain from including excerpts previously written( Pigs In Clover) because the content would offend. I reread the famous escapade of the woodchuck in the barn and file it in the far reaches of my file cabinet. Don't want to offend the PETA folks. I'm reminded daily of the Paranoia in the media when every movie I watch has a disclaimer. The following commentaries do not necessarily represent those of....

Excluding Love in the Time of Cholera, each of the most recent works of fiction I read is prefaced with a disclaimer that the characters and situations are not real. Any resemblance between their work and real people is purely a fig newton of someone's imagination. There I go. I've pissed off the cookie company. So what follows is about a blind person. Visually challenged. Since it was sent to me in an e-mail by the man's wife, I believe that at least the Cook family
(names changed to protect their identity) will not take umbrage.

Don had a very unusual night at the races that Monday. He had a good looking car-not one of the old junkers that blind drivers usually get to drive. So it looked fast and ready to roll. Unfortunately, the guide that went with the car was useless. Don may as well have been in the car alone. The crowd did the verbal countdown to start the race. 5...4...3...2...1...GO! Don starts down the straight-away to the first corner....and...and...and he just keeps going-straight off the racetrack. His guide never told him to turn into the corner. From my viewpoint-Don, guide and car simply disappear from sight. No. Wait. He appears to be driving along the outside edge of the track. I can just see the top of the car over the corner banking of the raceway. Now he's turned a right angle onto the track and coming down the banking...directly into the path of an on-coming car (also driven by a blind driver). T-Boned! Don got hit on his side of the car-but luckily wasn't hurt. But the cars were stuck together and his opponent's car was stalled. End of the race. It wasn't until later, when I told Don what happened that he even knew he went off the track. He also wondered why he was going downhill(coming down the corner banking)since he never experienced that in a race before. His guide never told him where he was or why or anything. Don was extremely disappointed.

Our little township is notorious for the lack of insouciance of even the most mundane matters. Two women present the town with a bill for damage to a fence by the town snowplow. When the town chairman refuses to honor the $500 payment for what he terms- I rephrase his remarks-a rusted tangle of barbed wire; they threaten to damage his reputation and start a recall campaign. The town chairman recounts a time when he was accused of fathering a child of a local woman. He's in his late seventies. We're taking Spanish lessons from the daughter of the former town clerk.For awhile we exchange e-mails with the former town clerk. When she brings a relative to our country store, we treat him with in the usual country friendly manner. In an aside, we learn that she's barely spoken to this relative in the last thirty years over some real or imagined slight. The former town clerk sends me an abrasive e-mail when I describe in a previous e-mail, kissing Marilyn Monroe in a dream.( Marilyn just isn't a very good kisser!) Her obnoxious reply is similar to her reply to Jorge, the town flirt, when she tells him, paraphrased and edited; Are you looking for something more than friendship?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Ford Woody

Automobiles are an important part of my psyche. Cars have not been an extension of my nether regions like the playboys of the world who have motorcycles, motorboats and fast sports cars. Number one son passes his driver's test. In an image permanently fixed in my brain, Matthew walks in the porch door of our suburban home. He stops a moment and pats his wallet. "Freedom," he says. Then he was promptly pulled over and cited for speeding on the freeway. Hah! I was three years old in this picture, a month before my birthday. My mother, a pack rat, saved everything including the clothes I wore in the picture. When she died, Dawn and I fill a 200 cubic foot dumpster with old Christmas cookie tins, preserved remains of parakeets, pieces of wood, thirty year old homemade elderberry wine, magazines, carpets stored on the second floor of the garage smelling of mouse urine, and even a box of sawdust. It was a disturbing experience.

This is my first vehicle. It wasn't fast but the important thing to remember is that I was mobile. I also rode a silver wheeled wagon with green sides. It doesn't count, because I couldn't propel it myself.
I was too little to do the knee and push maneuver. I graduated shortly thereafter to a tricycle. A red, white and blue scooter was my second car. By the time I was seven, I had a fat tire, 24 inch Schwinn two-wheeler. I learned how to ride it by practicing on my neighbor's 20 inch bicycle. I'm not sure of the correct order, but I learned to drive a car either from Joe Cusson in Northern Minnesota riding on his lap in a 1952 Chevy or when my step dad let me drive the Model T. I had to stand to depress the clutch while Dad operated the shift and the spark. My eldest cried when I took off the training wheels to her 20 inch bicycle. I was dumbfounded. She was traumatized by fear of falling without training wheels. My daughter is about a year and a half in this picture. Thanks to my mother who stored my Ford Woody on the second floor of the garage where mice took turns at the wheel, I was able to restore the Woody to it's original condition. Note the cardboard Ripple wine box.

They came and went. An Oldsmobile with a 4-barrel carburetor and white bucket seats, a Ford Sunliner convertible with glass pack mufflers, a Volkswagen I sold to my ex-brother-in-law that caught fire, an old Volvo that barely ran, a thirties era Chevy that never ran, the four wheel drive Blazer that got me in serious trouble off roading, a Volkswagen bus with blue stars painted on the ceiling, a series of $100 specials that would croak at the most inopportune times and even a Puch motorbike.
Ted and Fred would be miffed if I didn't include them in this epistle. I spend half my life in the more temperate months bouncing around the farm making it "my pretty". We emulate our parents. Making preparations to move out of state, I realized I, too, was a pack rat. My eldest daughter was the recipient. A canoe, thirties era gas cook stove, antique clocks, an Edison gramophone with a cardboard box of cylinder records and pressed back rockers. In my downtown storefront, I proudly displayed my Ford Woody next to a six foot carved eagle. A man who restored old cars including "Woodies" offered me $500 for it. I learn it's worth more. As it was, Dawn and I drove two, 26 foot Penske moving vans filled with our household goods. I left my Ford Woody behind. My hope was that she keep it for a third generation. I never asked for the details, but I know she sold it on Ebay along with three Steiff teddy bears that belonged to my mother-Mama, Papa and baby.

I wrestle with feelings of attachment and non attachment. Jorge, a friend who lives nearby says, "When I'm gone-it's someone else's problem." Jorge is a hermit bachelor. He cried when his golden lab Ben died recently.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I'm at a loss for words. I believe the cause is getting up at 4:45 am to jump start the two furnaces and drinking a leftover cup of coffee. I have two alternatives. One, is to post previously written excerpts from my non-blogging days. The other-landfill-assorted junk rattling around in my brain. I'm too lazy to transcribe the first. The second disappears in cyberspace when I don't back-up my musings, as my computer warned me in a prompt at the top of the screen. So, I'll just wow you with photos.

An onion harvest

A sheep with a headache at Turkey Ridge organic apple farm

Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the entrance of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

A surprise in the woodpile.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cabinet and Countertops

On Monday the garage thermometer reads -14. When Dawn pulls her car out of the garage for the 18 mile drive to work, I sneak my car in the workshop/garage. I'm hoping that by noon the car will have thawed enough to drive without ( myself and the car included) shaking and squealing. I need to drive to the Amish cabinet maker and confer with him about the birch cabinets I have on order.

It snows every two days. Saturday's snowfall was light. We consult the National Weather Service before attempting the 45 minute drive to The Big City. The radar( whoops I spelled it backwards) image shows a band of light snow in an hourglass shape. By late afternoon, the snow is supposed to dissipate. At 3 PM we're enjoying lunch at Piggy's. Despite the name, Piggy's is elegantly furnished-lots of walnut woodwork, antique chandeliers, comfortable seating, low lights and waitresses dressed in the European fashion. I look outside apprehensively at heavy snow falling.I order a pint of a local craft brew which costs more than the six pack of beer I purchase at the Kwikstop in Readstown. Then again, drinking Pig's Eye Beer-you get what you pay for. You may think I have a pig fetish. Normally, I wouldn't drink anything and attempt an hour's drive back home. I just don't care.

Dawn and I are construction geeks. We have little background in fine carpentry. We're smart enough to make up for the lack of experience. The clerk at the building supplies store tells us he's never heard of tile board. Later we show him where the tile board is kept. His response, " Oh, that's another department." The display of countertops is confusing. We have three choices. Real stone, fake stone and really fake stone. We sort through samples of Formica with a fancy name. The sign tells us that countertops can be ordered in standard widths of 30, 40... Wait! 30 inches wide? That'll cause havoc. The existing countertop is 25 5/8 inches wide.

That's why I need to confer with the cabinet maker. The frequent snowfalls make driving the back road to the Amish farm a white knuckle experience. The first hill is so steep one has to get a running start. There's no guard rails on Moore Road. Sliding off the road would be more than a quick call for a tow truck. I'd have to abandon the car, if I survived, and wait until spring to pull it out of the ravine. So, I take the main roads and avoid hairpin sharp turns and a grade to Shady Lane cabinets designed by the devil himself.

On the US highway, the trees lining School Road are covered with hoarfrost. Leafless, they look like lace creations on a Belgian tablecloth. The cabinet shop is empty. I hope I've timed my visit to avoid interrupting lunch. Off in the distance, I hear chain saws whining. The black and white mutt and the new rust colored puppy are frolicking along the fence line. There are only two daughters in the kitchen. The youngest, a wide eyed 5 year old, is sitting on a chair looking out the window. Another daughter is fixing lunch on the woodstove. I ask for eggs and the cabinet maker. Only the eggs are available. I tell the young lady I'll return in the afternoon.

When I return, Titus comes out of the house in stocking feet and asks me to park my car closer to the house. They're expecting a delivery. The bobtail truck pulls in immediately behind me. I volunteer to help unload the truck. The matriarch of the family tells me in a matter of fact voice, "You know those are 50 pound sacks." I reply, "That's OK. As long as there aren't 5000 bags." Four daughters, the truck driver, Titus and I unload two wrapped palettes of baking and cooking supplies. The daughters and Titus are working barehanded. The breeze on the hilltop is brisk. With characteristic understatement, Titus quips, "Kinda chilly, isn't it." I hold a leather gloved hand to my right ear to ward off frostbite from the biting wind. The driver drops a 50 bag of brown sugar into the crook of the right arm. I boost it to one of the daughters in the old house, turned general store. She grabs it as if it were a feather pillow.

Inside after unloading the bobtail, my glasses immediately steam up. A visiting neighbor says I look like a cartoon figure. Monday is wash day. Inside and on the outside porch, there's household of laundry drying. When another daughter brings in the frozen shirts. they look like flat bodies. "I've got questions. You have answers," I tell Titus. For an hour I learn the basics of cabinetry.

In a sudden flash of inspiration, I ask about the next baking session. I need bread. Viola says, "Just made some this morning." The two loaves she made will last for several days. She volunteers that there will be more bread by Friday. "That's fine," I tell her. I visualize the thick cuts of fresh bread I use for making french toast with their organic eggs. I put off asking her to teach me to make bread. I must first decide if I have the time and the energy to put into bread making. I marvel at the amount of hard work these people perform. Titus reels off a list of afternoon chores and tells Viola it may be too chilly to shuck and grind corn.

Walking back to my car, I notice a snow white goose standing motionless near the old house. "When did they get a goose statute, " I wonder. I'm often surprised at some of the Amish ways. For awhile there was a highway sign posted at the house end of the drive that said, "Parking for turkeys." It looked like any ordinary street sign. I never asked, but assumed it was a gift from English friends. The latest addition to the household is a canary. Goose statues? Then it moves. Perhaps not all the geese became Christmas dinners like ours.

My original intentions were to pick up hardware for a table I am making and then visit the building supplies store in Seneca. There is no such thing as a short visit to the Amish. Almost by design, getting coat and gloves on will not hasten my departure. I'm standing in a large open kitchen next to a hot woodstove fully dressed and sweating. Titus is showing me the underside of his cabinets, suggesting ways for us to operate a temporary kitchen sink ( I complain of having to do dishes in the bathtub), describing the installation of the countertop and a dozen other details. I drive off to the library to drop off a few movies. There's no such thing as a short visit to the library, either.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ghosts, Angels and Virgins

London Bridge is falling down,
falling down,
falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
my fair lady.

I took this picture of the bridge over the state highway in front of our farm. The image is of the first spring flood. No, the bridge is not falling down. Crews came and resurfaced the bridge the summer after this photo was taken. Armed with jack hammers, they ratta-tatt-tatted for five months. Working in the field that was closest to the bridge, I'd wear ear protection because of the whine from a jet engine mounted on a power vacuum truck. The bridge refinement may have been prompted by the bridge collapse on the interstate in Minneapolis.

Perusing Panati's Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody by Charles Panati, I learn the background of the famous child's song. Along with Itsy Bitsy Spider and Ring Around the Rosy, London Bridge was sung by every school kid in my age bracket. I have a 78 RPM record with songs and nursery rhymes. Panati writes:

When the first version of the bridge was constructed late in the twelfth century, the skeletal remains of a child virgin ( "my fair lady" of the rhyme) were incorporated into the pilings. The superstition then was that water gods did not take kindly to humans spanning and trampling across their domain and had to be appeased with the bones of a virgin-and one that did not die a violent death. The rumor that London Bridge was falling got started when it became known that the virgin had not died the natural death her parents alleged, but that she plummeted from a turret window of her family's weekend castle, pushed by unseen hands.

Refer to the picture above. At the right hand side of the bridge on the far end is a white dot. At that spot is a highway memorial to a young girl known in these parts as Angel. She died when a high school prankster she was riding with drove off the road, killing her at that spot. The prankster, so the story goes, was from a dysfunctional home situation. The man who rented the house to his parents had it demolished and burned after they moved out , rather than remodel the run down building. I'm guessing that was soon after the fatal crash. The memorial consists of a wire shaped heart, plastic flowers, an occasional Mylar balloon and notes to the departed one.

When we moved into the old schoolhouse, odd things start to happen. An outlet over the kitchen counter would turn on and off periodically. I replaced the outlet. It continued to malfunction. In our upstairs bedroom-we have four including one downstairs- a light switch would turn itself on. My upbringing was heavily infused with superstition. My foster mother was an old school Yugoslavian mystic. There's no room in this post for the mysterious things she performed. My Catholic upbringing in that family was loaded with mystical elements. I loved the copal incense, the Latin mass and some of the theology. At Christmas Santa came down our chimney. I could never figure out how he made it down an artificial fireplace. I'd look up over the electric logs at the cemented underside of the flue and wonder. My natural mother had a similarly superstitious background. This Christmas, I gave Dawn an expensive Sakuro chopping knife . I forgot to include the penny as the superstition requires. I always put my right shoe on first after reading about shoe superstitions in a fictional work about a shoemaker. Driving to the Amish, a flock of crows is feeding in the field across from the elk farm. When they take flight, I count the number of crows and recite the counting rhyme to see what comes next in my day. One crow sorrow, two crows mirth...

One of my teachers was a Native American Professor at the university. Along with other camp followers, we'd hang out with him at special places and gatherings off campus. One young lady came up to him and said, "I've been stung by a bee, sir. What does it mean? " His reply was, "Stay away from bees." His course on Native American Dreams and Visions debunked traditional woo-woo non-native applications of American Indian philosophy. The first two weeks of the course were investigations into quantum physics and the relation to Native spirituality. He was also, deeply superstitious. I organized a weekend tour called Let Nature Teach You. We stayed in the same motel room. The bed was placed such that when the occupant slept, their head was in the west. I helped him rearrange the bed that night. "Westing" is the Ojibwa term for death. Every house I have lived in since has the bed placed so that the heads of the sleepers are in the North, South or East. Those directions bring wisdom, nurturing or enlightenment.

Angel's ghost does not walk our floors at night. The outlet over counter is connected to another outlet closer to the stove. The microwave is plugged into that outlet. Moving the microwave one day, I learned the movement affects the haunted outlet. The connections in the microwave outlet were loose. The upstairs light switch? Again a faulty stuck switch. In a hurry, one can partially push the switch ( in our vernacular-shutting off the light) incompletely down. In that case , the switch will pop back up.

Friday the thirteenth and a thirteenth floor of a building? In Native American thought the number thirteen is a propitious number. There's a story about the thirteen moons on a turtle's back. I try not to, however, open an umbrella inside. I knock on wood occasionally when necessary and always, always, avoid stepping on cracks.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Hope You Can Laugh ( circa 1971)

Bored. Can't breathe. Can't go outside. Don't feel good. Tired of looking out the window. Can't write. Don't want to clean the house. Can't get excited 'bout nothing. Don't want to climb on the roof and look at the chimney. Don't want to walk around the house, lost, anymore. Don't feel like having a beer. Barking at everyone. Need someone to talk to, but nobody comes out here in the sticks. Can't think up any projects. Need something to occupy my mind and fingers, but I don't want to have to think. Tired of music, tired of the same old stuff. Can't even move the furniture around. Too darn lazy to feel the blues. I should whittle something, but I don't know what. I know this day will end up wasted. It really shouldn't. The only thing that makes me feel better is writing this. Even turned down a sloppy kiss from the dog. Things have been like this before and each time I don't figure a way out of the tunnel. If you know how, please tell me. Please, please don't suggest a movie. I hope you can laugh.

Penelope Camille

Penelope Camille- A True Story

In 7th grade we worked as office monitors. Once, just as the bell rings, she says,"Don't you wonder sometimes what IT is like?" She kisses me softly and walks away.

Throughout high school, I take great pleasure in walking into the auditorium behind her, marveling at her long blond pony tail and blue pleated skirt. I watched as she joined the cheer leading team, dated Doug M. , asked her to write something in my yearbook when we graduated. I lost track of her.

My ex-wife tells me to look up Penelope. Joanne and I are dating after our divorce. Stupid but not uncommon. I find that Penelope makes jewelry in a suburban cluster of buildings fashioned out of a defunct grist mill. I walk in and ask her to make me a ring. "What kind of ring?" she asks. Make something that you would make for the man you would marry. I know that she's 40 years old and single. It's a classic line straight out of old romantic movies.

We begin dating. I'm a free bachelor 2 weeks out of the month. After 16 years of penal servitude as bad guy, chief bread winner and keeper of the realm, I have joint custody of three children-one of which isn't potty trained. Penelope is coming straight out of a crippling relationship. Really, after discovering her lover in coitus on the kitchen table, she is unable to walk. She is confined to her bed for weeks. I'm also seeing a busty music teacher. I cancel a date with Penelope. The date with the well endowed music teacher falls through. 9:30 in the evening, the doorbell rings. My high school sweetheart is at the door. She thrusts a large folded piece of sketch book paper at me, pushes her way inside and tells me , "Read this." She's consumed an unknown amount of wine. The note castigates me for abandoning her. She wants to spend the night. I make sure that the encounter is strictly platonic-which it is, kind of.

After a whirlwind, fairytale Christmas, Penelope decides to join an ashram in Lenox ,Mass. I'm crushed. I sing, "Que sera sera," to myself and wait. In May, she returns with a different attitude. Eight hours of chopping carrots, a daily exercise regimen, fasting, Kuchicha tea and visions of Babjii's feet, she comes back in poor health. She asks me to marry her.

Our wedding was choreographed by Walt Disney. Part Hindu ceremony, part Christian, we hire a bagpiper and a rotund black woman who is the soloist at the symphony. Both force people to their feet. I bring them to their knees with a wedding program that includes excerpts of love letters we exchange before tying the knot. I should have been suspicious when a friend is consoling a sobbing Penelope in the back of the church. Warner Brothers could not make a better movie.

After the ceremony, we ride a white, horse drawn coach to the Women's Club on the lakefront. A 7 piece classical ensemble plays soft music while dinner is served. Rock and roll music straight out of Wedding Crashers and a last minute ceremonial drum session at our new digs rounds off the night.

Let me pause, for a moment while I compact the next 2 years, 7 months and 28 days.

It's late. Penelope isn't home. I'm worried. At midnight I call several hospitals and the district headquarters of the police. Nothing. Nada. Out of curiosity I open the bedroom closet door. All her clothing is gone. No note, no phone call, nothing. Two days later a man approaches me at my place of business. He asks my name and hands me divorce papers.

The following week Penelope and her boyfriend drive up to My house. As I approach their vehicle, I notice he's holding a silver scepter crusted with black onyx and jewels. The sight is so startling, I 'm briefly speechless. He holds it up toward me like they do in the vampire movies. "We want you to leave the house for 30 minutes while Penelope gets her things," he says. I avoid replies that could be cliches with a firm, No. Later she sends the same clown to my business with mortgage papers for my house I need to make payments. I emphasize the my house portion of that statement. I call for backup from the third floor warehousemen and dial the police. They escort him from the building. "Could I have hit him?" I ask one of the boys in blue. "Yes, but then we'd have to take you in also."

Enter Dawn my present wife. Being something of a white witch, she shreds notes from Penelope at the entrance to her jewelry fabrication studio. She returns everything negative Penelope conjures with her own brand of vehemence. Penelope hires an old, crippled crone as a divorce attorney. Here's the last scene before it fades to black:

The County courthouse has three doors. Before the days of metal detectors and security, all three are unlocked. I gaze up at Justice and walk in the door. At the elevator, I push the up button. The door opens. There's Penelope in a green shapeless wool smock. She looks like a nun kicked out of the convent. I gape and mutter, "I think I'll wait for the next car."

There's more, but I have been told by my superiors to rig for silent running and maintain radio silence.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Self Sufficient

It's been an experiment. Like a chemistry class project in which there is the supposition, testing, variables and constants, every year is a refinement of self sufficiency. When one thing would fail, another approach was tested. I can trace the origins of the experiment to stories my step dad told of living in Northern Minnesota. He would describe bear proof pigpens and take us to the old homestead every summer. I'd marvel at abandoned farmsteads slowly sinking into the earth, some with household goods left behind as if the tenants left in a hurry.

The first experiment was a 20 acre farm rented from an old German truck farmer. I raised 5 pigs, hundreds of rabbits and chickens, Muscovy ducks and planted a 60X40 garden. The ducks flew away and the rabbits, well, they kept multiplying until I had to move them into a converted chicken co-op. The end of
phase one came when a young couple living on a neighboring farm, also owned by the same gruff and irascible truck farmer, told me they were frequently ill. I knew their well was located down slope from the barn and told them to send a water sample to the state. The report came back: Don't even bathe in the water. Good old Erv yelled and ranted, raised our rent from $70 a month to $90 and told me there was nothing wrong with the water. To reinforce his point he installed an old tin can next to the pump, frequently sampling the tainted water. We decided to move. That's when I decided to become a vegetarian.

Moving involved butchering all our stock on weekends when I wasn't commuting to the city and an inner-city teaching position. After four weekends of slaughter, I vowed I'd never do that again. The
coup de grace came on the day we moved. A trailer carrying a freezer full of frozen chickens and rabbits, five pounds of roofing nails, my one year-old daughter's toys and other paraphernalia came loose on the highway, veered into the oncoming lane and was struck by a Greyhound bus. I'll never forget the sight of the bus driver trying to avoid the trailer and swerving toward a caravan of friends behind me carrying the rest of our household. The lesson here is never trust an old farmer who says, "Safety chains, nah you don't need safety chains. This one here is enough."

A seven month respite in the deepest and darkest part of the inner city-sirens, traffic and noise- made me yearn for the country. The next logical step in my bent thinking was to move everything I owned to 120 acres in the southwestern part of the state. There, with two brothers, I farmed 33 acres and
erected a temporary shelter on top of a hill under a shag bark hickory tree. The deer ate the soybeans to the ground. The hay crop molded because it was put up too wet. One brother insisted we plant 187 tomatoes plants. There were six people living in an odd assortment of dwellings- a camper at the top of the road, a small converted space in the pole barn and my wife, daughter and I in a tent. We couldn't eat all the tomatoes produced that year. By March my wife and I were ready to strangle each other.

We moved back to the city and lived with the in-laws. By August I was going crazy living with the Lieutenant Colonel and his wife. A small loan from my mother for a down payment on a three bedroom home not quite into the northern suburbs saved my ass. The house was originally built in 1913 on lots that were 30 feet wide. The saving grace was 75 feet of lawn between the house and garage. I
roto-tilled the lawn and put in a garden. I'd regale the neighbors with fifteen varieties of tomatoes. I experimented with broadcasting spinach seed versus planting it in a grid pattern. I had a wood pile. Blanche, the next door neighbor was furious from the smell when I brought truckloads of pig manure from the stockyards in the Menominee Valley. I was elected the unofficial mayor of our block. Young couples like us lived up and down both sides of the street. We had block parties and a telephone network to thwart vandals who came to cause trouble in the woods and railroad tracks behind the house. I lasted a few more years at this location because I had the land in the southwestern part of the state as a campground during the summer. The best laid plans... go astray. Divorce, crazy girlfriends, remarriage, a psycho new wife, 12 years as a peddler downtown, another rubber band flight to the Southwest and here I am.

Trying to imitate the Amish, I revel in self sufficiency. The first year the 60X40 foot garden plan becomes cumbersome and crowded. I discover an asparagus plot the previous owners planted and expand the garden. Then I plant separate plots in a field my son and I spend days with a brush hog clearing. Clear cutting seven foot tall weeds, stacking discarded pine logs, removing a rock pile and filling in an old house foundation were a few of our tasks. Each plot is at least ten feet wide. Because of natural impediments, the length of each plot varies from 60 feet at the shortest, to 80 plus feet. Each is separated by a grassy strip the same width as the garden plot. Two 30X40 plots closest to the highway become our squash gardens. If you add in the herb gardens and the previous asparagus garden, there were 21 gardens in all. Most days I'd spend 10 hours outside working. In the best years we harvest 500 pounds of potatoes and 300 pounds of onions. We have two freezers and enough wood to last two years. In my religious zeal for having my hands in mother earth, I never once questioned that two people cannot eat 28
varieties of lettuce and greens. Folks that came down our road to our cottage art industry left with plastic bags full of produce. Experiments with local farmers markets were erratic and took too much preparation. Giving away vegetables became a mantra.

Enter floods, cross pollination of our squash which led to frightening mutants of huge
squashkins, insect wars, an old rotted silver maple which fell not once, but twice in the same gardens, crushing a majority of the cabbage and corn family while attracting the "rats with antlers" as my dentist calls the white tail deer. Raccoon wars, ground hogs, rabbits, field mice feasting on my labors were constant. Six foot bull snakes couldn't keep the rodent population in check. My theory of planting more than we need to take in account insect and animals had a serious flaw. I didn't want to share my organically grown produce with varmints.

This fall I add seven truck loads of composted horse manure to the gardens. Two gardens are sown to grass reducing the number of full size gardens to 8. Ten thousand square feet becomes a manageable 5,800 sq. ft. Left over organic composted poultry manure is spread on a few remaining gardens. I mulch,
roto-till and dream of " A Good Year". A new neighbors promises unlimited amounts of manure from his dairy farm. I buy chickens, a goose, a turkey and organic eggs from the Amish. I discover a logger who sells cull logs of black locust. Four years of compost, sand and careful soil prep has given me some of the best natural loamy soil I've ever seen. I put my seed order in before Christmas.

For weeks and weeks it snows every other day. There's a four foot snow cover protecting the earth from sub zero temperatures. Then, it turns even colder. Temperatures of -26 one day becomes -32 the next.
At 7:30 am the power goes out. My imitation of the Amish isn't quite accurate. There's no water because the well is powered by an electric pump. The wood stove in the basement has 2 electric blower motors . The telephone is dead. The propane furnace blowers run on electricity. The propane water heater has an electronic ignition. I unplug the computer out of fear of damage from a power surge when the power resumes. The pipes in the upstairs bathroom freeze up when the slow trickle trick we learned from old timers dries up. We have a cell phone and a battery operated clock. All the rest that doesn't involve electricity is reading and sleeping. I walk around the house in a daze. I thought we were skilled at being self sufficient.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Life in Kickapoo Center

I try to remember when it's been colder. At seven am the garage thermometer reads -26. The young woman at the bakery says they closed school, but she'd have kept the kids home anyway. Her son has asthma. She tells me it reached -39 in a lowland area the name of which I quickly forget. At Wal-Mart they have the entrance doors blocked off to provide a measure of warmth for the cashiers. The elderly greeter wears gloves and a knit sweater. Poor Randy the cart guy is dressed like an Inuit hunter. The computer guy at the library offers relevancy when he says it's colder in Canada.

Way back when we had a sauna and a horse trough to jump in, someone would be chosen to break the ice on the galvanized tub before jumping in the tub. Ice can be dangerous if you didn't wear suits. The doorknobs were metal so your hand would stick to the knob as you opened the warming room door to taking a flying leap into the tub. If no one suffered a heart attack after the first plunge, the cold/hot/cold became indistinguishable.

In those days we didn't have running water or electricity. Keeping eggs cold wasn't a problem. On the south end of the platform on which we erected our temporary shelter-a Vietnam era army squad tent- eggs would stay fresh for weeks. In January they'd freeze on the floor. Most times we wore only t-shirts and sweat pants on cold days. There were two wood stoves, one for cooking and the other for heating. The heating stove was an Ashley air-tight stove which could hold heat overnight. The Monarch Malleable cookstove made the 16X33 foot shelter unbearably hot if the Ashley was filled with oak. We endured because it was a temporary fix before erecting a permanent house. We never built the house.

Late in October we drove to a small town and a lumber dealer that sold Styrofoam insulation in 4X8 sheets two inches thick. Forty years later, I know that the Styrofoam would have been lethal if it caught fire...And it did. Fortunately the chimney fire was put out before it could do more than melt a hole in the area around the metal flashing on the roof.

The sauna was both bath house, social center and church. The folks across the road were living in the same conditions as we. They were a 100 member commune with five marginal outposts and a main house which held 33 people. One of the tent outposts contained a ham radio which kept them in communication with the mother ship. None of the tents was insulated like ours. They called themselves The Farm. If you didn't mind an "Out to save the world" mission, a total vegan lifestyle and every other word punctuated with far out or that's tripping and women who mostly wore paisley skirts, you could get along fine. Often their kids would sneak across the road for a meal of some forbidden animal product, like eggs,cheese or honey. You didn't, however, want to be caught in a small confined space for any length of time because of their exclusively soybean diet which produced clouds of methane-like flatulence.

Winter wasn't so bad way back then. We had a wooden sled and a team of horses for local transportation. Early on we had to set the record straight with the hippies across the road when they'd blow a conch shell at 6 am to wake the folks in the outpost tents. Wind up alarm clocks had already been invented and our rising time was determined when the sun made it over the eastern ridge. I found an old brass bugle among my grandpa's effects and set out one freezing morning to set an example. When the first conch blew it's TA TOOO TOOO, I put the bugle to my lips and cranked out the worst gut wrenching cacophony of squeals and blapps. It was like kissing a porcelain bathtub. The conch shell greeters returned my blare with more toot toots. I blew more resounding wild blapps and blares. Then they got the message. I wasn't playing with them. I was fooling with them. They never awoke us again at 6 am.

For three weeks in spring, we had to contend with mudseason. Everything is more difficult, more trying than deep snow, when there's thick, greasy mud everywhere. One of the brothers who owned the property we so-called "farmed" said his Grandpa told him tires on cars in the old days wore out more quickly on the sidewalls than the tread from all the road ruts.

The Pooch gets busted for catching a bird slowed by the subzero temperatures. They huddle close to the ground to keep their feet warm, evidently making it more difficult to take flight from marauding cats. Tomorrow, I'll move the feeder to an area sheltered by deep snow drifts that the Pooch can't hurdle. Until then he's getting "a good talking to".

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Life With The Pooch

Ow ! Ow ! Ooo that hurts. I feel sandpaper scraping across my forehead. Then, my eyes are being scoured. Pucci stop. Stop ! I've grown a winter beard and luckily my fur gets in the way of the tongue lashing. It's barely 5:45 am. He knows I'll not get up nor let him outside. It is dark since the full moon waned or waxed or whatever. He settles next to my face, head on my pillow and rumbles. At 6:30 it's Dawn's turn. No, she doesn't lick my face and eyelids. She wants to cuddle. I want to keep warm on another below zero night, so we spoon. At 7:20 she sits bolt upright. She has to be at work in 40 minutes. The drive is 18 miles.

A nice, dark roast Bay Blend coffee is percolating. I open the deck door. Fierce Canadian cold air wafts through the storm door. The windows steam up instantly. The Pooch looks, hesitates, turns around and walks to the living room. It's cold when the Pooch doesn't beg to go outside. We discovered catfish nuggets on our last trip to Woodman's in Lacrosse. Although El Gatto will eat anything-cheese, pizza, raw venison, nachos, mice, Box Elder beetles-he loves catfish. I defrost and micro wave three nuggets. He's pacing the kitchen counter. The micro wave beeping is his Pavlovian signal-there's food coming up. I pull apart the small fillets while they cool, occasionally pushing Pucci away from the ceramic cat dish. When it's sufficiently cool, I slide it toward him. He laps the fish gravy and snags a nugget with his paw. We were amazed when we first watched this maneuver. He'll curl and dip either paw( he's ambidextrous ) , snag a chunk with his claw and put it to his mouth. The cat feeds himself like a human!

I'm making another lumberjack breakfast. Hey, it's cold outside. I may have to tote a barge, heft a bale or compose another episode of Life With Pucci. I toss onions, tofu, chunks of smoked pork shoulder and a mixture of egg substitute and jumbo eggs into a pan. Accompanied by a toasted slice of bread and my coffee with steamed milk, I set breakfast on the table. The pooch jumps on my chair while I grab the book by Art Buchwald: I'll Always Have Paris. I quickly add Louisiana hot sauce to the egg mix. The pooch doesn't care for hot sauce. He sniffs at the coffee and looks at my eggs with disgust. I make the mistake of leaning slightly to the left. He jumps to my shoulders and curls around my neck. Hey, it's kinda hard to eat breakfast with a fur stole wrapped around my neck. He jumps down and is content to watch me eat.

With a full belly, the Pooch gives me his best, "Let me out" meow. It is a question of training. For almost a year, the Pooch has patiently explained Cataguese. For example, he sails by me with what sounds like grunts. That's catguese for "let's play hide and seek." This particular morning he's full of the old nick, as my grandmother Olga would say. He hides in the usual places. I do the same. When he catches me, however, he decides to grab hold of my ankles and pretend to bite my toes. I'm proud to say that I've trained him to pretend fight, although Dawn shows me teeth marks on her arm Saturday night after tickling his stomach. He loathes being tickled there. "Well, at least you're not bleeding", I say. After the game he'd sufficiently warmed up to face the snow and cold.

My office is the second warmest place in the house. It's a great place to work on a day when my Yahoo front page says 40 below zero-1 dead. I hear a thwok on a window. When I walk to the kitchen I see a chickadee lying in the snow. Of all the winter birds, chickadees are my favorite . They must consume their body weight daily to stay alive. They are friendly little fur balls. One picks a sunflower seed and flies to a perch to eat. I'm out the door. The Pooch beats me by one step, grabs the chickadee and runs into the house. I grab him by the scruff of the neck until he squeals, telling him NO, NO. He drops the bird. I cradle it in my palms. I'm not sure if it is alive. I can't see any damage . Perhaps, he's just stunned by the force of the blow. I place him on the cedar chest in the back hall. If he awakens, he can flutter there without causing himself further damage.

The chickadee didn't make it. Damn. Burial or cremation? I'll think about that later.

It's time to let the Pooch come in and warm up. I do it more for my own concern than for his. He rarely jumps up on the deck railing next to the kitchen window and thumps at it with a paw. His previous life as a barn cat gives him resources unknown to most tabbys . The clear area under the neck, the neighbor's barn, a box in the woodshed lined with felt, a sunny, covered bird feeder on the deck-these are all places of shelter. Sometimes he'll patiently wait at the back door or if it's during the afternoon, he'' ll sit near the workshop door. I've also trained him that a knock on the new thermopane windows- a hollow conk-means I'll let him in. He always comes when I knock because there are treats waiting for him.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Restlessly Washing Ham

A previously written piece from August, 2008.

Today I surf a French cookbook looking for inspiration. Lately, dinner is feast followed by famine. Such is life with a cook who works on inspiration. One recipe calls for ham. The instructions read: wash the ham if it is too salty. I never thought of washing ham. Dawn fixes a pizza the previous night, which causes me to slurp water all evening and into the night. Since we use our own salt-free tomato sauce, fresh ground pork without additives and fresh vegetables, I attribute the excess salt to the cheese and olives.
If you’re wondering, this is practice in keeping to the main topic. I’m told by a friend that I wander in my writings. Now the challenge will be to connect this paragraph with Life in Kickapoo Center.
Sunday and today, I don’t go to work. I call an 800 number, press #1 a half dozen times in response to the employee information line prompts, enter the last four digits of my social security number, my birth date, the four digit facility number followed by the pound sign, write down a seven digit confirmation number and wait for the automatic connection to the store. I’m required to speak with a member of management.
In response to threatening weather -a severe thunderstorm with 70 mph winds-I batten all the hatches and put away any objects that might become airborne. My last task as big drops hit the sidewalk is to check the rain gutters for clogs. Our 40 ladder is now a 32-foot ladder after the infamous tree branch fell, severs 6 rungs like a Saturday morning cartoon. It is still very heavy. Wrestling it against the house, I twist my back knowing I’ll pay in weeks to come.
August. Temperatures hit the high eighties. After a particularly annoying week , I go to the local elementary school and pick up an application for substitute teaching. I’ll trade one form of punishment for another. Friends console me with words, “The kids here aren’t like the kids in the inner city.” Yes, that’s true. I like working with children. The monotony of repetitive, non-essential teaching methods and staid curriculum drives me crazy. Like Richard Brautigan, the late California poet wrote, “My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me.
The sun is shining. The sky is a stunning shade of bright blue. The heat and humidity of previous weeks transforms into cool nights and dry pleasant days. I stand on the deck wet with dew and think about winter. My son calls to chat. He worries about the upcoming winter. It is a problem for him since he spends a good deal of time outdoors. We don’t have enough firewood for the season. The wood furnace needs a new door. We go on the budget plan for propane.
For once, my wife and I have a day off together. My type A workaholic personality has us first weeding the 80-foot flowerbed that parallels the road and then pulling old fence posts. After installing new fence posts, it’s time to mow-a continual task April through October. Working around weather and foggy bottom land conditions, mowing the 4.6 acres takes three days. She complains, “When are we going to have some fun.” We think about taking off for one whole day-an event in which we do no work-no chores or gardening.
Before breakfast this morning, I fill a feeder-one of three- for the hummingbirds. I note that the two remaining feeders will need more nectar before the day is over. Early morning count at the feeders is 12 birds with the average around nine.
I’m petting Pucci as I stand on the deck. He keeps staring at the patio umbrella lashed to the deck rail. He looks up at the top of the umbrella. I put him down and take off the bungee cord fastened on the bottom of the umbrella fabric. I ease the umbrella up and bat guano falls to the deck. Then bats tumble out. Pucci’s head wags like a bobble-head doll in the rear window of a car. The higher I lift the umbrella, the more bats fall out and fly away. There may be over a dozen bats scurrying and flying about. Dawn stands next to me in amazement until one bat trying to make its way back under the umbrella veers toward her. She remembers the night a bat got into the bedroom. I used a tennis racket to defeat its radar and deflect it into bath towel before showing it the door.
Pucci sits on the railing watching the bats fly between the Norway pines and the umbrella. They fly close to the house like a raceway. I tie both the top and the base tightly. I appreciate the work that bats perform in keeping the area mosquito free. I just don’t like them roosting behind the shutters and using our equipment for a latrine and shelter. “That goes doubly for you raccoons, “ I mutter sweeping the deck. Why can’t these varmints live in the wild where they’re supposed to take residence?
I open an envelope of shredded beef in sauce and walk outside. “Pucci, where are ya,” I call. He comes quickly accompanied by the usual cat squeaks and grunts. Lapping the tender cuts off the salad plate, he occasionally coughs. We took him to the vet on Saturday, who’s treating him for an upper respiratory infection. It may be an offshoot of ear problems. We administer eardrops twice a day. In addition, we orally force an eyedropper full of amoxicillin down his throat. I use we because it takes two persons to administer medicine and hold him down.
I’ve spent months training him to come when called. Bringing him inside and holding him by the scruff of the neck while stuffing bubble gum tasting amoxicillin quickly destroys my rapport with him. He now tries to squirm away when I place him on the kitchen table. Climbing on the kitchen table was a no-no until we got lazy and allowed him to curl up on a Belgian wool placemat. It was a favorite perch. The eardrops are reinforcement that is again, negative. I bring him unannounced treats to remind him I’m not Genghis Khan. He lopes across the grass when I call because he’s the world’s best cat. I am hopelessly attached to the grey striped tabby with the raccoon tail. I worry about his cough. I don’t worry about spoiling him with raw chicken liver, raw venison and fresh ground pork. His life as a barn cat at the neighboring farm brought him to us riddled with ear mites, near starvation, and shivering in below zero weather. With luxurious accommodations and a healthy diet, he faithfully watches the perimeter of our land, consuming an occasional field mouse for the wild taste of meat.
The morning is evaporating with the fog and dew. The highway is quiet. There is no Sunday motorcycle traffic. No long string of 20 bikers disturbing the rural beauty in their thunderous quest for communing with nature in a mobile easy chair away from the everyday stresses of life as a doctor or lawyer or Indian chief. Crickets chirp. The crows left whatever meal they found on the berm hours ago. One of the hummingbird feeders I put out last evening is empty. I look for Pucci. When I approach the end of the deck, there he is. No, not the cat, but that darn woodchuck. Raccoons, woodchucks, fawns dancing in the yard at dawn, possum, feral cats, an occasional lost beagle, field mice, deer mice, voles, moles, shrews, squirrels and ring necked pheasants parade through the clover in the east lawn. The Pooch quietly takes a spot on the corner of the deck under the arbor vitae, hunkering down to watch the parade of animals. I go back inside to finish this piece. I need to get the flyswatter to get an annoying fly hovering over the computer.