Thursday, August 27, 2009

This is Buddy. He's a big, mangy sheepdog, border collie, mutt mix. He's Mandy's best friend. As we approach the Amish farm I tell my puppy, We're almost there." Mandy rides on the passenger seat. She's too little to see out the side window, but the passing of trees, farm sky and cornfields are noted through the front window. I notice that Mandy pays attention to the different sounds as we travel across the ridge top. First there's blacktop, gravel, seal-coated gravel and fresh gravel at the top of the ridge. I think she's memorized the sounds as we approach her birthplace. My announcement brings her on my lap so she can see out the side window.

Buddy sees us approach and lopes across the lawn. Mandy leaps out as Buddy reaches the car at the same time. Buddy takes Mandy's whole head in his mouth. "Hey howya doin' ?" is the head swallowing gesture. Mandy rolls on her back in ecstasy. They chase around the old white house where I park my Prism. Mandy Sr. is hesitant to approach. Mandy Mae, until recently, sought out mother to suckle. Mom didn't care for the sharp teeth on tender skin. I can't help but compare mother and daughter. Mom has a brown tinge on the fur across her shoulders. Otherwise they're spittin' images of each other save for the white markings. I suspect that Buddy may be the Dad. I'll have to broach that subject the next time I drive up for pie or like today, to trade salsa for the use of their hand grinder.

Yesterday, I drove up with Mandy on a milk mission. Buddy and Mandy chase around with a plastic tub. Everyone's gone except the Patriarch who comes out from his workshop to talk. The state inspector recently shut down their roadside bakery stand. There's an enviable job for someone. Drive up to roadside stands and tell the Amish their bakery has to be inspected and approved by the state. The Patriarch tells me they contacted the inspector's office several times in anticipation of selling bakery from a state approved facility. He never responded. I'm really enthused that my tax dollars are being spent to harass people with a grass roots operation that sought out approval from a non-responsive government agency.

I carry a bag of beef flavored cat treats in my pocket to lure Mandy back to the car. Buddy snurfles my hand trying to steal the tidbits from Mandy. I grab the pup and toss her on the front seat which is covered with an old bath towel. I've never been able to leave the farm without an extended conversation. In their kitchen, I stand announcing my departure only to find myself standing for another 30 minutes. Mandy sits patiently on the front seat waiting for me. Buddy decides to chew up his white plastic water bucket. On the way home Mandy always falls asleep. I repeat the mantra as I drive onto Kickapoo Center Lane. "Mandy, we're here." She looks up expectantly and leaps from my lap as I shut off the engine and open the car door. The Pooch hears the car drive up and saunters over. Mandy's covered with Buddy slobber. The cat thinks this is worth an extended sniff session. He inspects the puppy from head to toe. Mandy's patience is limited to about three milliseconds of sniff inspection from the cat before she lurches out and tries to swallow the cat's ear in one piece. The cat will race off for cover under a pine tree while Mandy tears after the Pooch. I unlock the back door and put the milk in the fridge. For the next thirty minutes the dog and cat will tease each other mercilessly until Mandy is outsmarted by the cat's ability to leap tall hedges, climb on the deck rail or put himself in a position as King of the Mountain. Mandy will relent not before barking furiously to let the Pooch know of her displeasure.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Wow. I've got some time on my hands. The tomato sauce is simmering on the front burner, the dog and cat aren't fighting( I don't hear any high pitched yipping or angry meows) and there's not a thing in the garden I want to pick. I'm hoping that by noon, the sauce will have cooked down and I can start adding fresh chopped onions, green pepper, jalapenos and cilantro for salsa.

The potato harvest is complete. Officially, we had 511 pounds of Kennebec white potatoes. Actual white potatoes boxed and stored in our 67.5 degree basement is 461 pounds. The 10X80 row actually yielded more than 511 pounds. As I till the brown loam, I dig up potatoes missed with the fork. Some were sliced in half. Most were potatoes in a bad year I'd take to the outside food prep area and wash for immediate consumption. This year I can afford to be lavish. The big lumps of rotting spuds, potatoes smaller than a golf ball, any that have a tinge of green which is a pernicious poison and jumbo mutant potatoes hit the compost pile. I'll take Mandy the pup over to the Amish farm for milk, canning lids and eggs and inquire about selling some of the bounty. The remainder will be given away and eaten.

The 26th of August ranks 149th on my list of notable events. It is the date of my first marriage. What usually happens is that I'll note the date. Then, I'll recall a few pleasant memories ( I should have noticed that right from the start I was doomed when the bride and her parents excluded me from most of the wedding planning) and consider my self lucky I'm married to Dawn. Although we have our differences, life with Dawn is much different than the 16 years I suffered with the mother of my children. Everyone has an "ex" story. For purposes of "ex" planation and example, I decided to end the marriage and take joint custody of a toddler not yet potty trained, her five year old brother and an older sister entering into teenage oblivion. In those days joint custody was a novel thing. All three are grown now. Their mother still lives in the same house, married and divorced her second husband ( recently deceased from a pernicious lifestlye) and relies on son and son-in-law to keep the house from falling into disrepair.

The thirty minutes I allotted for the blog has expanded to 60. I should check on the pup to see if the mosquitos have carried her off. The Pooch(cat) just had his monthly dose of Frontline. Then I'll chop and can 14 pints of batch #2 of salsa, savor a leftover lunch of meat loaf and mashed potatoes while reading Janet Evanovich for fun.

Monday, August 24, 2009


From first light until the sun rises over the hills to the east there's a gauzy curtain of fog in our valley. At first it obscures everything except for the most immediate trees, shrubbery and fields. There's a cozy feeling of isolation in a fog enclosed world. As the sun gets higher in the sky, the curtain retreats to mist rising from marshes and lowlands further away. Every single thing is either covered in dew or grass cuttings. I'm dodging outside work.

The potato harvest is underway. Sunday was a ball buster. To someone with a hernia that's saying a lot. The lush potato vines began to senescence or die off. Removing them is the first order of business. Without a dog the work is tedious. The puppy takes flying leaps at each vine as I toss it into a pile to be carted away by wheelbarrow to the compost pile. Sometimes she makes a somersault in mid air. She's not very coordinated. The leap ends with a thud and oof as she misses the vines and hits the turf. I make a note to purchase a Frisbee. This dog may be a world champion Frisbee flier.

Dawn comes out to the front field in her Homer straw hat. She's going to weed the third batch of carrots which are hidden to the eye. The only way to tell they are planted in the former onion patch is the "uncommon crow" markers I placed adjacent to the carrot patch. In that way I could thwart the cat from walking over my new planted carrots. He loves fresh dirt. "You want some help with the vines?" she asks. I don't hesitate with a positive reply. We cart away 8 piles of vines leaving an eighty foot bare patch of dirt with nubs of taters peeking out of the soil. The ones closest to the surface have a green skin from exposure to the sun. At the end of the day we toss a full gray plastic tub-about 50 pounds- on the compost pile. The green part of the potato is poisonous. We take no chances since we've boxed and sorted 250 pounds by sundown.

What a contrast to last year. In June of 2008 I'm washing mud off the leaves after a disastrous flood. Our total harvest was 50 pounds of pebble size potatoes. Now there's more than 50 pounds of small potatoes lying in heaps in the ditch next to the mounded potato patch. We can afford to be lavish. I rip a fingernail hand digging a tuber close to 12 inches long and nearly 2 pounds. When we get potatoes this size, I knock two together and listen to the sound. It's either a solid dense thud or, as in one case, smelly potato mucous oozes from the hollow core. Yuk. I toss it, too, in the ditch.

Favors for help with the garden can be repaid with sweet white Kennebec potatoes. My neighbor will be one recipient. He hauls rich brown compost from an old manure pile up the hill. Then he has a neighbor friend come with the tractor and scrape one of the horse corrals and dump the rich brown composted manure into a pile in a lane next to the corral. I haul six truck loads of manure in the fall, hoping for a good garden year. And it is.

Saturday Dawn cans 14 half pints of pickle relish with the last of the cucumbers. The tomatoes I'd been cooking for 9 hours become tomato sauce. I decide against catsup ( from the Malay word ke-siap which translates to "fish brine") . I'm sure there's a story how America's favorite condiment goes from fish brine to ketchup. I'll check with my bathroom reader for the curious connection. Before I head outside to mow overgrown lawn, I mix spices and herbs in a half full stainless steel, 12 quart pot. First, I toss in an unmeasured amount of fennel seed poured directly into my palm. Next, I consult the Ball Blue Book recipe for spicy tomato sauce. Measured amounts of black pepper, salt, sugar, vinegar, are combined with 6 large onions-diced, 12 garlic cloves finely chopped and simmered in olive oil. The bay leaf jar has mostly pieces of leaves. I toss in five large pieces. Dawn harvests fresh basil. Twelve leaves prove to be very little when chopped with my sakuro knife. I walk to the herb garden for more. Dawn gets a third helping before I'm satisfied. The oregano jar is empty, so Dawn goes to the oregano hanging in the summer kitchen. She pulls leaves off the vines which I grind in a coffee grinder reserved for herbs only. I want more fennel taste. This time I shake ground fennel from a jar we buy at Penzey's spice house in a north Milwaukee suburb. Time for the taste test.

I simmer elbow macaroni in the pan I'd sauteed garlic and onion. I'm too lazy to wash it and decide that the remnants will add flavor. When the macaroni is ready, I ladle fresh tomato sauce over the pasta. A cereal bowl and three pieces of string cheese makes a tasty lunch. Dawn cans 12 pints of sauce while I mow the front forty. The next batch of tomatoes will become salsa. I'll document my recipe for thick salsa.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


In Arizona seasonal rains occurring during the summer were called by locals-monsoons. Initially I was puzzled by the term since my idea of a monsoon was a continuous pattern of rain lasting many days and nights. In Sedona, our residence for five years, rainfall could be heavy-sometimes coming down in sheets on one side of the road while the other side was bone dry. Most often the term monsoon, according to my frame of reference, was a semi-frequent heavy downpour lasting no more than an hour.

Here in southwest Wisconsin, we've had frequent rains of late. I postpone my lunch after canning fermented pickles to dig white potatoes. The gray skies foretell an impending storm. Accidentally spearing one potato, I set it aside for lunch. Julienne sliced into thin straws, fried in olive oil and smothered in fresh onions, jalapenos,cilantro and tomatoes-it is a whole meal. In one half hour while the pup catches a nap, I dig a small box of mini potatoes and a recycled cardboard box which holds four gallon plastic bottles packed full of medium, large and jumbo spuds. The jumbo spuds as pictured above weigh between 1 1/2 and 2 lbs each. Dawn says they're probably rotten inside.

I grab one huge potato on the top of the pile which is suspiciously wet. When I bring it inside after hosing off the mud, I slice it open. Potato mucous oozes from the hollow core. Choice expletives follow. Grabbing one of the ten to fifteen terry cloth rags I go through in a day, I wipe up the mess and toss the offending potato in the compost pail. Back in the garage, I select another jumbo. Same scene without the ooze. It's hollow inside and showing signs of decay. All the potatoes in the box are in jeopardy. The old "one bad apple" scenario.

Mandy is most active in the early morning. My breakfast is delayed. I'm sipping too much coffee in between running to the garage for a breakfast potato. The pup hides new rawhide chew toys I give her and chews on the chair, shoes, terry cloth towels, a cat toy and knocks over a Navajo kachina. I'm getting impatient. Soon she'll be banished from the house. The cat tolerates abuse above and beyond what I would expect from a cat. Sometimes I wish the cat would haul off and let the dog have it. "Yeah," the devil on my shoulder says. " That would last for a minute." With frequent rain, everything is dripping with moisture. Mandy slobbers over the cat. Her frequent attacks leave the Pooch spiky wet from the rain on the grass. When the puppy tries to bite the cat's tail, I let him in the back door. The cat jumps on a bench in the back hall to watch Mandy's frequent amusing( to the cat) antics.

The Pooch retaliates. Mandy and I are walking from the garden to the house. La di da. Doh- di- doh. Everything is peaceful and harmonious. Suddenly, Mandy lets out a yelp. I'm startled too. The cat streaks by at 150 mph knocking into the puppy and runs for shelter under the deck. I guffaw at his audacity.

The raccoons came back last night. the ground is littered with chewed corn cobs, their leaves pulled back. I'd set the live trap, baited with two insect riddled ears, but the old trap is cranky. The raccoon reaches into the trap without tripping the plate at the rear. The coon is able to get one more ear of corn. Tonight I'll have to spray some WD-40 on the mechanism making the trip function more sensitive.

I'm pressed for time today, since the Amish are babysitting Mandy while we drive to the big city for supplies. I drive up their lane yesterday with a gallon of ice cream as payment for sitting with the dog. I appreciate their generosity since Mandy Jr still harass her mother for milk. I make a note to myself to get the pup's birth date for our records and flea and tick protection. In the kitchen sink I put sliced potatoes in cold water in preparation for blanching and freezing. The box of Kenebec white potatoes will have to be sorted. Larger suspect potatoes will be sliced and diced for the freezer. The remainder when dry and brushed free of clumps of dirt will go in our 68 degree basement.

After that, I have a plastic tub of tomatoes awaiting a stainless steel pot and a slow simmer for sauce. It seems like I've been walking up a long hill carrying fifty pound pack on my back. The cat groans on the floor next to me in the office. I echo his feelings. Once we're at the top of the hill the view will be magnificent.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tickling Yourself

Picture this. You're a dog. The word no is a frequent, repetitive noise in your consciousness. Chewing on the rawhide handle of a drum, pulling an afghan off a side chair, chewing on a hand that reaches down to pet you, all result in varying decibel levels of no. Now, you're outside on the yet unfinished patio in front of the kitchen window. You've followed the cat out the deck door. The cat has eaten a full plate of raw chopped pork. It's his second breakfast. The first was interrupted by a pointy-nosed Blue Heeler snuffing the juice from the ham roast, slurping raw milk and pushing you aside with her butt. This movement is a defensive posture designed to save the nose from a sharp swat by one impatient cat. The butt movement is followed by a full body slam which presses the cat to the ground. A voice from heaven calls out, No Mandy. You look around. There is no one immediately visible. "Gee", you say to yourself, " I can't get away with anything."

Coyotes were active Monday night back by the river. Last night all is quiet. Coyotes range far and wide. The Amish tell me one of the daughters went out at 11 pm with a flashlight at the sound of their yip pie-yi-yo. Geese, laying hens and meat chickens are but a few of the tempting coyote morsels on an Amish farm. The minute she switched on the flashlight the yipping stopped. Mother Amish says it indicates coyotes were near-by. Mandy is allowed to roam between the house and garage. On "coyote nights" she's securely locked in the garage in a make shift pen with a comfortable cage and two blankets.

When I walk out the back door, there's no Mandy Mae. I sent the cat out the deck door to avoid the frantic free-for-all that accompanies an early morning encounter between cat and dog. Stepping further into the penned up breezeway, Mandy approaches from under the bench at the back door. The routine is always the same. First, the dog urinates followed by the cat. The difference now: the cat pees in the grass. That's unusual since he has trouble with the required feline rule that says all body wastes must be buried. The cat moves on to the soft sand by the onion drying tent. Mandy is chewing on something by the truck parked on the gravel apron leading to the shed. I investigate. She's trying to swallow a whole dead mouse. Several days ago a mouse got away from the cat and climbed into the under carriage of the truck. Later I find a stiff mouse. Now, there's another mouse. After a slight tug of war, I remove the mouse by prying Mandy's jaws open. I walk to the edge of the front field and toss the carcass into the weeds beyond the fence line.

Both dog and cat follow me inside for breakfast. I offer Mandy fresh raw pork. She looks at me with disgust. I place the dish of raw meat on the console table for the cat. I tear open a package of chicken morsels from Pedigree. Made especially for puppies, it's finely chopped in a savory sauce. She sniffs it and walks away. The cat isn't interested either. I'm puzzled. The dog eats weeds, cabbage leaves, grass, bits of matted turf that are tossed off by the riding mower, yet won't touch any prepared food EXCEPT anything designed for human consumption. The dry dog food in the bowl is ignored. When I trip and spill the entire contents of the bowl on the concrete outside the back door the dog munches morsels eagerly. I find the weekly Shopper I left on a metal chair in the breezeway torn to shreds on the mat in front of the back door. It was, by the way, supposedly out of reach.

Raccoons hit the corn patch last night. Four bare cobs of corn, neatly peeled of outside leaves are discarded on the grass. Yesterday's afternoon task was blanching and freezing ten pounds of corn removed from the cob and stored in quart freezer bags. I've eaten my fill of sweet corn, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today I'll pick more corn and distribute it to friends and neighbors. Dawn takes corn to the residents of the retirement home. I'll tune in NPR on the radio tonight, only because I don't want varmints that near the house.

Oh by the way, you can't tickle yourself.

Monday, August 17, 2009


SHC: spontaneous human combustion. I'm a bathroom reader. Upstairs, in our nicely remodeled schoolhouse toilet and shower, there's a paperback subtitled"Answers to the questions that torment everyone." The author begins by mentioning Charles Dickens. In Bleak House there's a reference to SHC. Dickens found 30 cases on record. Names and dates, as late as 1966 are given as evidence by the author. The victims are found incinerated with only a trace of clothing or body part remaining. Nearby objects: paint, clothing or even newspapers are unburned. It takes a temperature of at least 3000 degrees to reduce a body to 10 pounds of ashes. In each incident no foul play occurred. Nor is their an explanation. I think I may spontaneously combust any day now. If I do, here are a few factors.

At 5:00 am the cat meows once, jumps on the bed and curls up between my arm and face. He licks my chin to make sure I'm awake. At 5:30 I begin sneezing. At six, I walk out the back door to be greeted by a wildly enthusiastic puppy who chews on my fingers. The cat attempts to push the back door open. When I let Pucci out, dog and cat chase each other, turn somersaults, bite ears, and take a moment to pee. I join them, since there's no one around to see. I haven't decided whether or not the cat enjoys the routine. I spend 30 minutes attempting to keep the peace. I give up at 6:30 and bring the dog in for a breakfast of dry dog food and raw ground pork. After the dish of raw milk which both the cat and dog share (the cat followed the dog inside) I toss them outside for more chase and bite. I'm back out at 7:00 to separate the two. Dawn comes downstairs after her shower and lures Mandy inside. More finger chewing, followed by a vigorous thrashing of my running shoes. Mandy is now asleep with her head resting on the front of my shoe. It's a ticking Pee Bomb. Every time she groans in her sleep, I run and check her whereabouts.

My youngest daughter decides to get married. Since she's been living with the man for almost nine years, they decide on a simple civil ceremony. She calls me two hours before the event to ask for my blessing. I'm moved that she'd even care, since she lives two thousand miles away. I tell her that her future husband is the best thing that ever happened to her ( after me). Later she calls me in tears. Her older sister was unhappy and lets the youngest kid have a " piece of her mind." There's no room for details nor do I care to air any. I talk to son, listen to oldest daughter and console youngest kid. I'm not happy with the turn of events, although things seem to work themselves out, later.

Dawn spends all her waking hours the past weekend canning vegetables. First sauerkraut, then kimchi kraut, corn relish and quick dill pickles. I assist with the details in between the never-ending grass mowing. Today, I'll freeze cabbage, corn and bag ten Amish chickens for the freezer. I've never heard the Amish complain about butchering 65 chickens in a morning at the same time doing laundry and canning pickles. I make a note to myself to cut through the kidding and ask how they maintain their sense of humor.

In the 10 minutes before Dawn leaves for work, I begin my sermon entitled,

I can't handle any more of this or I'll spontaneously combust.

The dog needs a kennel. We need to stop buying locally at inflated prices and travel to Lacrosse. Next year will be different. Who's going to finish the kitchen remodel. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

The ticking Pee Bomb is restless. I hear her stirring on her soft flannel blankie. If I get her outside and the cat doesn't lure her into another version of the Keystone Cops, I can take a shower. I might even plan for a trip to town to get a 20 pound propane tank, talk to my friends at Wal-Mart. Wow. I'll ask the Amish if they'll babysit. Mandy bats 3 / 6 in car riding. Three good rides out of a total of six. Three times she sits quietly on the seat next to me or climbs in my lap and gazes out the window. She's grown in the past two weeks just enough to see over the edge of the window. Her sea legs are better so she'll stand on the armrest and sniff the breeze. The other three times she cowers at my feet dangerously close to the brake pedal, pees on my lap or on the seat. My neighbor repeats the mantra, "Only you know that warm feeling ..." -you know , "Love is like peeing in your pants?"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ugly Spud Award

Three days of thunderstorms, humidity levels equal to one of the gulf states and two animals who decided that wrestling is an alternative to boredom have us looking for things to do other than acting like a pool lifeguard. There's yipping and some angry cat meows in the living room as Mandy tries to retaliate for a backhand stab by the cat.

Two 80 foot rows of potatoes were seeded on Good Friday. The Kenebecs are still in the ground. The weather has been too wet to harvest. I've been hit first, with a severe case of carpal tunnel from pulling weeds and digging spuds. Then, I wake up early last week and I can't turn my head more than a few degrees left or right. No other symptoms. This is a problem, especially when pulling out on the highway since I can't crane my neck far enough to see cars speeding down the pike.

Mandy and I walk to the Keuka Gold potato patch. A three foot section hasn't been touched. Evidently, I threw a few red seed potatoes in with the golds as I uncover four big reds and two medium gold potatoes. Mandy helps( really) by imitating me and digging furiously in the soft sandy loam. She finds a small spud and runs off with it in her mouth. "You little bugger, you," I yell at her. I have hash browns for breakfast and the kids eat raw ground pork. Outside the cat and puppy chase each other over the driveway and across the lawns. Inside the Pup collapses on a fleece blanket inside the doorway. The Pooch goes upstairs for a nap.

The old saying, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, is very apropos. We take advantage of the quiet time to straighten up the house and do dishes. Mandy is not trustworthy left alone without supervision. I complain to Dawn that she's a leaky faucet. "Golly that dog can pee a lot." For once we do not have a plan for canning or freezing fruit or vegetables. I have to take the portable drill and circular wire brush to the burnt-on peach drizzle at the bottom of our stainless steel canning kettle. Late Saturday night we harvest a large plastic bowl of pickle cucumbers to make Amish sweet pickles. The recipe is simple. 1 cup sugar, 1 cup cider vinegar and 2 1/2 cups water.

In between lazy rains, I pull a Cannelini bean plant and put the beans in the dehydrator. The plants have been inundated by weeds. I am worried that bugs or excessive rain will ruin the crop of dry white beans. The same is true for the kidney and black beans planted in the same 80 foot row. I'm relieved that the white beans look mature and are undamaged. The plant yields a full tray in the dehydrator. Next to the Cannelinis I find a hidden soybean plant. The soybean crop is poor. We have just enough edamame to eat as an appetizer.

The high winds of an earlier thunderstorm flattened a portion of the corn patch. I'll be able to harvest the corn but the stalks lying on their sides are an open invitation to raccoons and woodchucks. At breakfast I nuke another ear of corn, leaves and all. The kernels are almost fully formed. The taste is extra sweet. With all the extra rain everything is lush. This is the time of year one has to be careful not to stand in one place too long. Weeds grow on top of the black plastic I laid over a bed of sand in the area we are constructing a new patio.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dog Days

It's a dark and rainy Friday night. The kids are asleep on the couch. The cat is knocked out, feet in the air. Mandy twitches occasionally chasing the cat in a dream. Dawn and I watch an English movie, Pie In The Sky, a detective movie in which the lead character-Harry Potter's muggle father- plays a constable who wants to run his own restaurant. Asleep, the cat and dog are precious. Awake they're the Devil himself, especially the little one.

"Did you order quiches?" Dawn asks. The phone rings late in the evening. "Quiches? I didn't order any quiches." I retort. I'm thinking back to a fundraiser for any number of local schools. Generally, I resist a good Samaritan urge. Finally, I translate Dawn's question. Peaches. I don't remember ordering Peaches. The neighbor to our Amish friends tells us that our case of peaches has arrived. Damn. I'm up to the gills with canning vegetables. Last year the peaches were over ripe. Trying to cut back on the sugar, the jam became Hot Fuzz Peach sauce.

Mandy and I drive to the Amish farm to pick up 50 pounds of peaches. It begins to rain, so I don't let her out of the car. Buddy, the Amish dog sticks his nose in the open car door and nuzzles Mandy's snout. Mandy's disappointed that she can't run with Jesse James, the puppy or wrestle with Buddy. She sits patiently on the seat next to me as we drive off.

I spend the entire day processing peach jam. In between steps of jam prep, I take the Pup out for brief walks avoiding brief showers. Late in the afternoon, the cat and puppy have a spirited game of chase. Dawn drives up as I'm cooking the final stage of peach jam. Twenty one cups of peaches, fourteen tablespoons of lemon juice, two and one third cups of sure-jell and thirty eight cups of sugar fill my stainless steel pot to the brim. I turn the dial on the gas stove a bit too high. Out of six positions not including the "high" setting, I set the dial between 2 and 3. It scorches the fruit and pectin mix. When I turn it down to "2" it takes forever to bring the sugar, fruit and pectin mix to a "rolling boil."

I taste the jam. It has a smoky flavor. Dawn suggest naming the jam " roasted peach" jam. I'm not amused. The pot is steaming and slightly boiling. I've lost patience. Twenty one pint and two quart jars are washed and turned upside down on a clean towel. I fill the jars without waiting for the rolling boil. It takes four tours in the hot water canning bath at ten minutes each to finally process the jam. We give up the thought of making dinner. Instead we order the Friday night fish fry from the Potato Hill restaurant.

For a short time we allow Mandy in the kitchen. The Pooch seeks safety on a chair while Mandy yips in a high ear piercing bark that not only annoys us, but flattens the cat's ears. After an "accident" in Dawn's studio, Mandy is banished to her outdoor pen. The cat settles in for dinner and a movie. When Mandy settles down, soft hearted Dad brings her inside with us. It's late. Mandy goes outside for a last bathroom call and quietly snuggles up to her fleece blanket in the dog pen.

The next morning, I awake at six to the sound of the blinds thrashing against the bedroom window. Heavy rain, thunder and lightning threaten to knock over the onion drying shelter. In T-shirt, swimming shorts and a raincoat, I walk to the white polypropylene shelter. The north side of the twenty foot long tent is sagging under the weight of rainwater caught in the eaves. I push up the plastic fabric and a gush of water hits the sand below. After the heaviest portion of the rain subsides, I walk past the corn which has been flattened and into the house. My shorts are soaked. I open the garage door to check on the Pup. The Pooch follows me outside in the area between house and garage. Both follow me out to the lawn. The cat hunches down under the car while Mandy takes an opportunity to pee. Against my better judgement, I allow her inside. We'll skip the description of antics: chewing on the furniture and so on. When she heads to Dawn's studio while I'm making chocolate chip pancakes, I race to beat her to the carpet. I get there just as she starts to squat, grab her up scolding her and take her to her shelter in the garage.

Mandy takes out her frustration ripping up newspaper while the cat heads upstairs under the bed for a nap. I eat my breakfast in peace. The dog is asleep. The Pooch comes down with Dawn and sits on a book on the table in front of her as she sips coffee. He enjoys the scratch behind the ears, mouth hanging slightly open. I'm mulling the thought of declaring Mandy a "farm dog"-an Amish term which means she's not allowed in the house. The cat sleeps on the table until he's rudely awakened by the book underneath him falling to the floor. It promises to be another busy day with temperatures hitting the ninety degree mark. Dog days.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Predictable Uncertainty

The downstairs phone rings. It's three am. I squint to make out the red LED numbers on the bedside alarm clock. Dawn goes downstairs, hits the replay button on the answering machine and listens to the message. A new hire calls in to report that she can't make it in for her 6:30 am shift. She's fiftyish. Her husband collapses on the bathroom floor. It's diagnosed as an aneurysm. Dawn listen while the woman speaks to the 911 dispatcher. Later when Dawn gets home from work, she says the husband isn't expected to live.

The morning drill is repeated, only we start earlier. It's at 5:15 am. The Pooch meows once and jumps on the bed. Circling around me, he licks my hand all the while purring loudly. I walk downstairs while the cat grabs a quick bite of dry cat food. Mandy is still sleeping. When I open the garage door, she stumbles out of bed wagging her tail. I open the gate to the front field. The Pooch trots to soft newly turned earth in front of the corn patch. The two of them play tag on the lawn under the rotting silver maple. The cat is the instigator, running swiftly past Mandy. The dog gives chase. If Mandy gets too friendly, the cat bats the dog's nose.

Both animals come inside when Dawn comes downstairs after her shower. Mandy sits at Dawn's feet wagging furiously while the Pooch sits on Dawn's lap. The cat meows that he wants to get down. He walks to the back door and I let him outside. Mandy chases dish towels on the floor dragging them under the table. We can short brine pickles and 18 pints of three bean salad well into the evening. Water is spilled frequently and I drop small white terry cloth towels to soak up the water. After two and a half hours of running, chasing, yipping and nipping at my heels, Mandy curls up on the rug in front of the deck door. She lets out a soft moan each time she changes position. The cat walks by the kitchen window. "What's up Doc?" I say to him. He comes around to the deck door and I let him inside. He touches noses with Mandy and turns around to go back outside reassured that's she's OK.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Aw Shucks

I warned ya. More puppy, more gush and more cute.

Actually, Ella e-mails me with a question. "I thought you were trying to simplify your life?" I respond with the standard line about companionship, winter and rural isolation. What I didn't tell her was how close I was to another flight of fancy. Quincey Tharpes, my free teacher counselor to deal with stress and violence reminds me that my life story resembles a rubber band . Inner city teacher who lives in the inner city followed by a year in a tent in rural America. Businessman in a downtown urban location followed by a retreat to scenic Sedona, Arizona. Apartment in the state capitol followed by truck farming in southwest Wisconsin. I'm stuck. Don't want to live in a city anymore, but the isolation and lack of certain amenities drives me nuts. Dawn says, " He'll get the kitchen finished and want to move."

I can't deny that thought.

Mandy changes things, at least for now. Mornings are frantic. The cat wants out early this morning. I grab my keys, let the Pooch out the back door and unlock the garage door. Mandy gets up from her comfortable bed and rushes to greet me. We walk toward the radio in the onion drying tent. The cat stops to pee in fresh dirt. Mandy follows suit. I switch off the anti-raccoon floodlight on the corn patch and turn off the radio while the kids play hide and seek. It's a new game. I have to give credit to the cat for thinking of this version. He crouches low under a drying table wiggling from side to side. Then the Pooch leaps out at Mandy. Mandy being easily distracted, is watching a flock of birds overhead. She doesn't see the approaching mountain lion. The Pooch runs off into the rock pile around the silver maples. He snickers. Mandy follows the cat, crouching and barking at him. When the Pooch thinks it's safe Mandy runs straight for his tail. The Pooch runs for cover.

Mandy thinks it's great fun to latch onto my sweatpants cuffs and play tug of war. "No Mandy," I say. She chews on a weed in the sand pile as I walk off. I almost make it to the house before she starts nipping at my heels and grabbing my cuff. To thwart her, I pull up my sweatpants past my calves. Quite a spectacle. Bleary eyed, my hair sticking out in three different directions, pants hiked up like a nerd followed by a puppy and a teenage cat wanting breakfast.

Mandy has every imaginable texture and taste of toy. A rope twist, wooden spoon, corncob, rubber squeaky bone, plastic tub top, pork bone, squeaky catnip mouse, canvas doughnut, rawhide doughnut and a Nerf ball. "No Mandy," I tell her as she mouths a white ceramic cabinet knob. "No Mandy," she's chewing on a chair rung. "NO Mandy," I say getting louder when she tugs at magazines on a coffee table. Then, she tries to pull the afghan off a side chair. Our kitchen floor has texture to it. We deliberately choose a brand with brown swirls. It hides the real dirt I track in daily. Mandy tries to dig up a brown spot on the linoleum.

The frenetic pace continues until my breakfast. She makes a last gasp attempt to climb on my lap for more breakfast. Then she settles down to the comfort of chewing on a running shoe and a nap. Yesterday, after breakfast and a short nap, we pull weeds. I should explain that I pull weeds. Mandy chases the weeds I pull out of a flower bed, bites at the hosta leaves and attacks my arm as I grab clumps of grass and lemon clover. I plan for canning tasks in between minding a cat who wants to come inside thirteen times an hour and a dog who amuses herself with chasing after beans I drop. By three thirty, I'm relaxing in a lawn chair on the deck. I've pressure canned six quarts of pole beans. My arm droops over the side of the lawn chair. Mandy idly mouths and softly chews my fingers. I close my eyes and rest knowing she's nearby.

In a week the cat and the dog will be inseparable. The five acres and hundreds more surrounding us present a healthy environment for the kids. Perhaps I'll move on to laying hens, some goats and ducks in a plastic wading pool. I take Mandy to visit her former home. She runs wildly at Buddy, the Amish dog and rolls over with the one remaining puppy. They chase, tug, and dig in the dirt while I ask questions about canning and vegetables. The Patriarch volunteers to "babysit" if we want to travel to the city. I tell him I'll consider his offer. Mandy is a well mannered car traveler. Today is baking day on the Amish farm. I'll go for pie. Mandy will romp with Mom and Buddy and Jesse James, the puppy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Breakfast With the Kids

I get a note from the local school system asking if I'll continue as a substitute teacher for the '09-'10 school year. I haven't responded, although I'll write or call as we near the beginning of school asking them to take me off the list. Not that it matters.

They pay me for a half day when I drive to town for a one-on-one assignment with a student who was removed from school. The dispatcher tells me the student was "naughty". He doesn't show up in the designated meeting spot and the dispatcher calls me on my cell as I wait in the parking lot of the technical school. She asks me to report to the special ed. classroom. I beg off on the assignment making excuses. The aide and the teacher in the special ed. class are feuding. The teacher has little control. The previous time I spend the afternoon in the classroom, I loiter most of the time. The few students who are in the room refuse my assistance. One in particular goes on and on about the nasty food they serve for lunch. The students are specialists in avoiding any kind of classwork and expert in verbal bantering.

I decide that I'm blacklisted for refusing an assignment, since I'm not called for the remainder of the year. One class I taught was an AP history class. The students are bright and self motivated. The teacher is low key and capable. I know him from my days working at Wal-Mart. To make ends meet he works for a specialty company stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. The salary for teachers in this area is pitiful. Both he and his wife work full time in addition to working Wednesday evenings and Sunday filling shelves with potato chips. He's also a coach.

The news on NPR reports of a plan to match teacher salaries with student performance. The ridiculous idea has been tossed around for years. I'm certainly aware of poor performing teachers, however, to link student performance and salary is phenomenally backward. As a teacher I successfully managed my classroom with little support from administrative staff. Teaching materials were absent or old and outdated. I often innovated with my curriculum. Granted I've been out of the classroom for awhile, but indifferent parents, social and economic factors, aging school buildings, drugs, alcohol, vandalism, and theft occupied too much of my time.

The history teacher tells me of a substitute they hire to take over his classroom. I'm peeved they didn't call me since I know the students and am familiar with the routine. The older man is assigned to follow the history teacher around for the day in advance of taking over his classes. When I bump into Stan shopping at Wal-Mart, he tells me with a grin about the sub. His students take pictures with their cell phones as the sub falls asleep in class, snoring. What an affront to me.

The Pooch wakes me at 6 am with his usual tactics. My day begins with feeding the kids and taking them both outside. Two hours of fun with the Pooch stalking the Pup, Mandy chewing on everything in sight including the rungs on the kitchen chairs, Mandy trying to dig up the spot on the linoleum floor, the Pooch jumping on tables and chairs to watch the Pup's antics and frequent trips outside to pee(the dog). I end up with Mandy sitting on my lap. At first she's alert to everything around her. She watches the traffic on the highway. She listens to bird sounds. Slowly, her head begins to droop. The with a kerplunk, she falls asleep on my lap. I bring her inside and put her a a chair next to me while I begin the blog for the day. She may appear to be clumsy at times, however, she makes an expert leap from the chair and cuddles up next to my shoes, gnawing on old socks. It is too quiet. I check on her frequently. She looks up each time I sneak a peek, wags her tail and her eyes say, "Are we going somewhere?" I think it's time for another backyard romp and then today's task. Digging carrots with Mandy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shh !

Shh. The baby's asleep. It's after eight. It's been a busy morning.

The Pooch(our cat) comes up to wake me a six. He curls around my sleeping form. When I reach down to pat him on the head, he plays a game we invented early on. I tickle his feet and he pretends to attack my hand. He mouths my fingers gently, gnawing like a puppy. On occasion his sharp claws will catch my skin when he fights with his back feet. I decide to arise and check on the Pup( our dog). The cat nips and bites a feathered chirping bird which I remove to a bookshelf so's not to wake up Dawn. While I get my sweats on, the cat hides under the comforter waiting to attack my feet. When he does, I chuckle. I'm reassured that he's back to his normal playful self. Yesterday afternoon, I tossed a book at Grandpa Grumpy when he attacked Mandy causing her to whimper and tremble.

Dawn says I shouldn't throw books at the Pooch. " It'll drive him away," she says. I counter with, "He aggressively maneuvered himself closer to Mandy and took a swipe at her." Dawn is right, however, the Pooch's behavior bothers me. It's one thing to be defensive about a puppy who can be inquisitive and pushy. Mandy, however, stays wide of the cat, having been attacked several times. The cat hovers, either out of jealousy or concern for the new arrival. I watch the two carefully to avoid bloodshed.

When I get downstairs, I let the Pooch out through the deck door and open the garage. On Sunday, I constructed a new containment center. Using an old door and a piece of oak plywood from the kitchen remodel, I cordon off the entrance way to the garage. Then, I place cardboard in two prominent places. Mandy learns quickly. She uses the cardboard when she has to pee, missing it only once. I give her an 8.5 for ability. I discovered that unlike the cat, Mandy doesn't like the cardboard box inside her pen. When I open the garage door, she's standing in the cage giving me that where have you been look.

It takes two hours to prepare breakfast for myself, the cat and Mandy. Dawn only gets coffee. Mandy gets a small dish of milk and scarfs down leftover raw pork from the cat's dinner. Each time I make a trip to the garden for green peppers, jalapenos and onions Mandy follows me nipping at my heels. The Pooch follows at a distance.

We ( I should say I) have broken every law of dog training. Mandy has learned to jump at your leg to get attention. When Dawn picks her up, the Pup licks her face. Left outside in the breezeway, Mandy whimpers. I ignore the whimpering which Dawn says reminds her of a chimpanzee. The transition to wailing gets my attention. I let her in. The Pooch has been watching the scene. It's better than TV.

In the kitchen Mandy crushes a dog biscuit and throws around a canvas circle toy with a squeaker. She tries out a chair rung for taste and I scold her. Then she retires to a pair of shoes gnawing at the tough leather. On the deck are rawhide chew toys and what's left of a miniature head of cabbage that Mandy shredded. I put her in the laundry basket. The Pup chews on the band of my underwear. Then she jumps down and lies underneath the table. If it becomes all too quiet, I go in search of Mandy. She'll be destroying something, peeing on the carpet or chewing on a toy mouse that belongs to the Pooch. Ain't life grand?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Oh Mandy

If you're allergic to cute, have reservations about terminal homespun or just plain can't tolerate any schmaltz, you may want to skip over the next month of Seven Roads to Home.

Mandy Mae was named after her mother before we acquired her. On Saturday we take the pup on a dump run. Saturdays at the town dump are a social occasion. We get the latest garden tips, gossip, weather information and a chance to speak to people seldom seen. Dawn spends so much time jawing with our webmaster, the new town chairman, the "dump lady" and neighbors that I have to remind her that we're blocking the door and the truck is running. After a round of heavy petting, Mandy and Dawn and I head for the Amish farm. I've brought along a gallon zip lock bag of Red Flannel dog food. Mandy doesn't seem to care for the taste of Red Flannel so I'm going to trade for some Beneful. When we arrive at the farm, it's like old home week. Mandy is bowled over by a herd of puppies. She latches onto one of her mother's teats and won't leave Mandy Sr. alone. Finally, Mom is allowed inside so the puppies don't harass her. Mandy is distracted by Buddy. He's lying on the porch. She nuzzles his muzzle. Buddy opens his mouth and gives her a dog welcome by mouthing her head. One of the daughters asks if we've named our puppy. "Yes, she'll always be Mandy Mae," I tell her. As we recount last night's Adventures With Mandy with the Patriarch, his wife stands in the doorway listening.

"She's a great dog. Slept through the night in her cage in the garage, " I say. "She's definitely an Amish dog, however. On Saturday morning, I take her for a walk in my bare feet." The grass is heavy with cold dew and grass clippings. "Mandy follows nipping at my heels. Friday afternoon I couldn't get her to go anywhere with me. The secret was the bare feet. Her eye level is accustomed to bare feet," I tell Titus.

The Patriarch's wife says it'll be quiet on Monday night as opposed the bedlam Saturday morning. The temporary cardboard shelter and wire fence around a grassy area in the front yard looks like a tornado touched down. Monday all the remaining dogs have been sold or will be removed to new homes. I hesitate when we are asked inside. Mandy is off on a caper with her brothers. The two youngest Amish children are playing with the pups. Several of the daughters are dressed in Sunday finery. They'll be picked up soon for a tour of local rummage sales. The puppies have consumed all the Beneful puppy chow. Titus hands me a bag of Purina Chow with a trickle of puppy food at the bottom. They've allowed the food to dwindle in light of the pups departure. The second batch of puppies from a neighbor, the Patriatrch tells us, weren't exactly well fed. When they arrived at the farm they were hungry.

We ask about feeding Mandy cow's milk and other pertinent questions regarding her care. When we leave. Dawn holds Mandy on her lap so the pup can look at the countryside. Back home, the Pooch keeps his distance from Mandy. If she gets too close, he hisses and arches his back. Yet, he's still curious. He takes a swipe at Mandy's nose later on in the afternoon. Mandy has been given notice to stay clear. We rename him Grandpa Grump. Mandy avoids the cat. When I walk to the garden to dig Keuka Gold potatoes Mandy follows. The Pooch trails at a safe distance. The Pup thinks digging in the garden is great fun. There are weeds to chase as I toss them in the wheelbarrow. She stands next to the potato fork snatches a potato and runs off into the vines. Her interest is short lived. She returns to help dig in the dirt. Pucci walks into the cucumbers to hunt mice and get out of the hot sun.

WWTAD ( what would the Amish do) becomes a mantra. Mandy sleeps on my lap as we watch the movie, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Dawn says the Amish wouldn't spoil a dog like that. Later Dawn lures in the cat with a fresh plate of raw pork. Mandy is transferred to the garage and her cage. If you thought the cat was spoiled, consider that Mandy has a cardboard egg box inside the wire cage. The box is lined with soft fleece. On the floor of the cage is a green wool blanket. She has two fresh ham bones, a rawhide chew toy, a dog biscuit, one of the Pooch's toys, a large squeaky canvas ring for tossing and a wind up, ticking alarm clock. I briefly consider bringing her inside for the night, but dismiss the thought when she pees on the kitchen floor immediately after a walk outside. The Berber carpet on the second floor will not be baptised with Blue Heeler urine.

Sunday morning at 6:30 am I wake up with a throbbing wrist. Cutting cabbage, pulling weeds and digging potatoes inflames the carpal tunnel so badly that I can't make a fist. Mandy discovers a taste for raw pork. I feed the kids on two levels. The Pooch eats his breakfast out of reach. Mandy slurps raw milk and fresh pork. Dad has potatoes and an egg. All's well in Kickapoo Center. The ending Kodak moment: Poochie the cat, Mandy the pup and me walking down the lane between six foot high swaths of Queen Anne's lace toward the river. My only regret-calling the cat "Pooch". Dawn and I maneuver through he/she/Pooch/pup. I make a point to call the dog by name and the cat becomes Kitty. In that way, the Pooch doesn't come running when I call the pup. Pucci stays near, since he's not sure if this animal is a varmint or a buddy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mandy Mae Miller Jr.

click on image for a larger view

The Pooch spends a day inside resting from a tumultuous week culminating in being locked in the barn for 24 hours. I venture off to a town on the Wisconsin River, St. Vincent De Paul and a cheese company. There's more trash than treasure at the resale store. The cheese factory is located in an industrial park on the south side of town. We pull up to a conveniently large parking lot and the outlet store. Next to the front door is a 4 foot high wooden carving of a morel mushroom. The town's motto is Morel Capital of the World.

Inside the large L shaped room, there's a bank of coolers at your left, a door to the cheese making area directly ahead and off to the right is a sample display. A box of toothpicks and a sign directs folks to use the toothpicks to sample varieties of cheese like a morel combo, 3 alarm cheese, pesto flavor cheese, horseradish, jalapeno, habanero and a few other kinds that have slipped my mind. At the cheese prep area suds flow under the door to the showroom. Large picture windows at the back of the sample station allow visitors to watch as workmen in hairnets, beardnets and white togs test one long rectangular stainless steel vat. Another vat is full of curds and a huge Mixmaster beater traveling on an overhead track stirs the curd. The Amish patriarch asks if they have more bulk packaged cut ends than the single variety on a shelf in the cooler. A young woman volunteers to get more and trails off to a storage area with a rolling cart. While the patriarch confers with his wife, he sets aside different flavors already mentioned. The woman weighs and prices the shrink wrapped cheese.

I look at one of the labels for the bruchetta. It weighs nearly eight pounds. The price is $7.94. The bargain is phenomenal. The drawback is that you get what's left over from bulk packaging. If you're not fond of three alarm cheese, jalapeno or horseradish cheese you're out of luck. Simple varieties-the staple of most households-such as Colby, cheddar or mozzarella are for sale in the cooler at regular market prices. I mention to Titus that he should raise goats. Goat cheese sells for $6.99 / pound.

We take a different route home noting the time and distance. Either way to Muscoda, the time elapsed is a little over 34 minutes. By buggy, this would have been an all day trip. I drop the folks off at the farm telling them I'll return in a couple of hours. They have a viewing to attend at noon. The girls are packing up bread, rolls and pies for sale along the highway. They have a newly made sandwich sign-Locally Grown Produce and Bake Sale.

As I pull up to the garage, the Pooch walks out from behind the hedges and greets me with his version of cat hello. He follows me inside. I feed him some chicken liver and he retreats to the back of the couch for a nap. For the next two hours I prepare the back entrance. With old windows I'd stored in the lawn shed, I partition of the entire space we use as a canning prep area. I hinge one of the windows for a gate. Dawn wouldn't appreciate having to climb over a 36 inch barrier. With the Pooch snoozing inside, I return to the Amish farm for my portion of the cheese and our new addition. Two of the daughters open the shrink wrapped cheese and cut portion for me. They've been directed by the Patriarch to not accept money for the cheese in return for driving to Muscoda. I tell one of the daughters to tell Dad I threatened them with bodily harm if they didn't take my money. I lay ten dollars on the counter, pack a cooler full of pungent cheese, grab Mandy Mae and head back home. As I pass two of the daughters on the highway, I open the car window and wave heartily. If I hadn't spent all my money on cheese, I would have stopped for cinnamon rolls.