Tuesday, February 24, 2009


It's one of those mornings where little things begin to annoy me. I can't blame it on a lack of caffeine. I had my usual mega-dose. It starts with a phone call to the doctor. I need a refill for a prescription. Someone screwed up and issued my prescription for a year's duration-no refills and only a 90 day supply. I call the local number. Judy answers. "Just a second, I'll connect you." Whoa, a direct shot. That's unusual. For the next five minutes I'm forced to listen to a rendition of something like High School Musical but performed by the gospel channel singers. I disconnect and redial. "Due to an unusually high volume of calls, we are unable to answer your call. If this is an emergency, dial 911. Click. Disconnect." Unbelievable. The clinic which is part of the local hospital doesn't take voice mail? I redial again. Living in rural America has its drawbacks. This time Jenny answers. She sounds like she's straight out of cheer leading tryouts at VHS, the regional high school. Before she can put me on hold I have her take my number and ask for a return call from the nurse.

While I'm waiting for the call-back, I start the dishes and make a mistake. I look in the refrigerator at the shelves loaded with food. For breakfast I have an omelet of fresh eggs from the Amish, crumbled Mexican cheese and leftover meat. On the third shelf from the bottom are plates of plastic wrapped food. The dinners were memorable. Now it's just plain old food. With a wee bit 'o Scottish in the gene pool, I can't bear to throw food away. But this is out of control. Then I hear that voice. My wife commenting about the blog. "Tough day, honey. You're writing about the refrigerator again." She always adds the honey to make it appear as a friendly comment.

The pizza was a thin crust marvel of homemade ingredients. The enchilada had a green chili sauce that was delightful. The beef bourginon was a let-down because I neglected to adjust cooking time for a reduced amount of beef. I saved it because I like the flat egg noodles. The rest of the shelf lies on the kitchen counter. I will take it to the Amish this afternoon for Buddy and Mandy, their dogs. Our spoiled cat loves freshly opened cans of pate, but turns up his nose at leftovers. There are open cans of red kidney beans, black olives, a plastic tub of sour cream, a glass bowl of leftover refried pinto beans AND way in the back is the last installment of a$100 kit to whiten my teeth from talkative Dr. Bob. I think about conducting a mold experiment for my own enjoyment. The corn bread I made last Saturday went into the compost when it sprouted small greenish-black dots. I enjoyed three pieces before it went awry.

In the converted space at the back end of the garage that will be a summer kitchen, I have a cardboard box with convenient handles that is filled to overflowing with frozen vegetables from two years ago. They will also be added to the compost. In my quest to shorten the length of our food chain, I froze anything imaginable. Unlike the man in a small Northern Wisconsin town who hit the news lately, my mother is not in the freezer.* (see below) As I write this, there are three shelves of jalapenos in the dehydrator. Whole or sliced, they were hidden in a container at the bottom of the chest freezer. I'll turn them into dried spices for sausage. One of the counter cabinets, a small free standing unit removed from adjacent to the gas stove features a deep drawer filled with our last onion crop. With sub-zero temperatures of late, I'm hopeful that the deep wooden drawer protects them from 25 degree temperatures lately. It's a blessing we drank the wine stored there.

Writing is kind of psychotherapy foisted upon daring readers who stumble upon this blog. In the time it has taken to upload the image and describe the process, I have convinced myself that the process of fine tuning the food chain is a long involved one in which there are many side experiments. I ask a good deal of questions of Titus' wife about their food processing. Since they have no electricity, a refrigerator and freezer are out of the question. Winter allows them some variations but Mother Nature's vagaries are consistently inconsistent. In January it reaches 40 degrees and at the end of February it is below zero at 7 am. I am going to include as many variables in my food experiments to create an interesting mix of pickled, salted, frozen, dried, canned and fresh food. I couldn't do any worse than the chain food stores with expiration dates that run as far out as 2011, the fillers, chemicals, processing and variations of sodium based "enhancements", corn syrups, beet sugars, carcinogens yet undisclosed and weary substitutes for real food like bacon flavored crumbles to spice up a salad.

*We spotted a bumper sticker the other day: What's in your freezer? A news article came out recently about a man who froze his mother after she died of natural causes to keep receiving her social security checks.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Raccoon Dog

Bear with me. Or, should I say, Raccoon with me. Wading into deep technological waters for someone who is "challenged" when it comes to computer technology, I adjusted, tweaked and slimmed the size of this image. It has taken its toll on the creative limits of my imagination. Mr. Dog here as you see it is- as good as it gets, folks.

Tanuki, as he is called in Japan " has been part of Japanese folklore since ancient times. The legendary Tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded" according to Wikipedia. There's more to it, but I'd have to add the adult content disclaimer. It is also not the true reason why I have begun this post. I'll let you do the research, if you so choose. Google Raccoon Dog. I'll give you one true fact. The adult Tanuki is a real animal, often mislabeled badger. He has abnormally large testicles.

I'm sitting at the kitchen table sipping my strong, leftover coffee laced with chocolate. It gives me the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound and deflect bullets off my bare chest. I don't have the cape, since I just awoke. Our new kitchen windows afford a larger view of the east, looking across the fence line and into the field below which is a floodplain near the river. Three fourths of the time we've lived here, it has flooded. It becomes a five acre lake, waist deep. In last years June flood, Mother Nature washed sand bars off the bank of the river. The dairy farmer who owns the land would be hard pressed to grow corn in this field. He did throw one load of manure along the eastern boundary lat fall in a futile effort to reclaim the land.

If you have followed me in this winding tale of life in Kickapoo Center, you'll remember the appearance of the gnomes last fall. In the darkest parts of winter, all has been quiet at the base of the Norway pines on the east fence line. The loud parties, clinking and clanking of steins filled with hard cider and streaking gnomes rolling in snow disappeared with an stern warning and edict from the Grand Master; What was his name again? Oh, now I remember: Newton Ulm. No parties! No drinking! No women! The punishment? Banishment to work for the Amish down near Seneca. They are a stricter, more orthodox sect of Amish who will wear only black and believe that work is the one true way to honor the creator. Gnomes are not fond of work. They guard their identities closely. If you learn the name of a gnome he/she is required to work for you on tasks of your choosing. Does Newton Ulm work for me, you ask? The Grand Master is exempt from all gnomes rules and traditions.

Gulp! My coffee isn't hot. It's the sight of three gnomes, Tanuki and Spot the dog from Our Gang. It means trouble. I reach for the tin can telephone hanging from a hook on the outside corner of the Arbor Vitae growing on the south side of the deck. It's connected to Hildy Pine. She's the wife of Jonathon Pine who grows at her left. They are both at the edge of the east fence line. Grandpa and Grandma ( who doesn't have a face) are scattered around the east forty forming a protective circle of trees for the old schoolhouse in which we live.

"Hello, hello, Newton are you there?" No answer. Since tin can phones have no operator I can call on, I shout again, louder. "Hallooo, anybody there?" "Gzsnurf, gasrumble, is that you Gavrillo." "Yes, I'm here." Sorry to wake you." " Oh you didn't wake me, I was just soaking in the tub enjoying a cigar. Wotcha want?" I describe the scene on my deck. "Tanuki, eh," says Newton Ulm. "Haven't seen him in these parts since the Japanese came to visit S&S Cycle back in '04 to look at their motorcycle engine production facilities. Hmm. He must've liked the area. Could have reminded him of home back in Gunma Province."

Newton promises to look into things. I step out on the deck. Brrr. It's cold. February 21st and the overnight temperatures sink down below zero. It's probably a good thing it snowed on Friday night. The 4 inches of snow will provide an insulating blanket against the biting cold.

"What's happening, guys?" I ask. The dog stares at me and rumbles a low growl. "Now, now, Spot, he's OK," the large gnome in the center says. " We hears ya are making de wurst." "Yes," I reply, "I'm making sausage." I wonder how they'd heard about the Polish, Italian and Chorizo I've been experimenting with. Must have been the odor of garlic, I surmise. "We'd like to help." My video camera brain imagines a dog, a shapeshifting raccoon dog and three jolly gnomes helping me with the sausage. " Come back on Tuesday. I won't have any ground pork until then. If you are really serious you can help me with the hog," I say. I look at them questioningly. I'll wait until I hear from Newton Ulm before I agree to anything with these characters.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Short Ode To Snow

This is my mental image of myself on this snowy Saturday morning. When I went to bed last night, the heavy carpet of snow was gradually receding. Under the 40 foot Norway pines, large circles of grass were beginning to green up. I could almost make out the outlines of our eight 70X10 garden plots. This morning, the Pooch plows through waist deep snow. The National Weather service calls the snow "light". Since 7 am small, dangerous crystals fall furiously at a 65 degree angle from the North. The single lone goose who's been flying to the river at night to roost, found a mate last evening. I thought it was a sure sign of spring. I've been watching the juncos. When they head north, I can plant seedlings in the growth chamber I've constructed in Dawn's soap studio on the south end of the garage. Snow complicates everything. Snow adds drudge work that was a daily feature through most of January and December.

In simplicity there is beauty the wise old sage says. The natural color palette for winter is variations of brown, gray, black and ,oh yes, white-white-white. My escape these days is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The narrator is a dog. I'm a sucker for dogs, stories about dogs, dog movies, anything dog. Enzo, the dog in this story, claims that dogs become people in the next life. We don't have a dog. We have a cat who thinks he's a dog.

I have digressed and I apologize. In the book previously mentioned is a subtle truth. That which you manifest is before you.

What did I do to manifest all this white stuff. The cartoon drawing is Dawn's 1990's version of me. It was part of a project for our trading post business. I never thought the image was a good likeness of me. I did appreciate her skill at line drawings in black and white.

The cee-ment Holstein at right belongs to Jorge, retired cop, former megalopolis city alderman and hermit who lives at the top of a hill across from the Amish. I have many Jorge stories, but for now, you'll have to settle for one more snow picture.

I must shovel out the wagon, head off to the closest burg to get some money for the hog being delivered on Monday. If I plan this right, I can shoot through the town dump and offload a few bags of garbage, pick up a Godfather sandwich at the Cheese Corner and scan the 99 cent movie rentals at the Village Market. Ta Ta.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Dark. There are no streetlights. Dusk is gone and so is the horizon glow. The nearest neighbor's mercury vapor yard lamp is an orange glow in his barn yard a half mile away. Other neighbors are a single orange dot on hillsides. We have a low wattage, energy saver coil lamp in the photoelectric lamp over the garage. It illuminates the gravel apron of the area in front of the two car garage. I zip up my leather coat carrying two packages of frozen sausage on my way to the Amish.

In the city recently, I forget to turn on the headlights of the truck. Only when my wife points out that the dashboard is dark, do I realize the error. Night in the city is bright. Turning from our gravel road to the main highway, I flick on my brights. The highway signs jump out in brilliant yellow. Turning right onto a paved county road and then another gravel road, I follow the crazy turns and back tracks of the river on my right. An old white clapboard farmhouse, deserted when they lost their job on the local dairy farm, pops up on the left. Then, the road becomes a tunnel through arching trees. A fork in the road and sharp turn left takes me up a precariously steep hill. A few nights ago, a red fox with a fluffy white-tipped tail streaks across the gravel. The ascent past Cross Creek Tree Farm, past the goat farm suddenly shoots the car to the top of the ridge. It's unnerving to reach the top of the hill and not see the road ahead. I slow down because this part of the gravel is snow covered and slippery. The ridge top road snakes across a panoramic ten mile view. One house perched on the edge of the ridge is cold and lonely tonight. A single lamp in the window and a car in front is the only sign it is occupied.

Quickly I'm plunged down a steep incline and back up to another ridge top and the elk farm. Another sharp left turn past the Quonset hut where they park their school bus with the day-glo fluorescent tape around the windows and escape route. Off in the distance the cars on the US highway inch their way to the east. A deer runs past me. I slow down and wait for another. Stopping briefly in case there's a slow, third deer, I look at the corn stubble in the field. If I were inebriated or in my teens, this road would equal the roller coaster ride at the state fair. It takes another steep dive downward past the ranch home with the old root cellar built into the side of the hill. I can see the white frame houses of the Amish farm. There are no visible lights.

Turning onto School Road, I must climb a short, steep bank while making an immediate left. I'm wary of the snow covered gravel. There are buggy tracks in the snow. A woman is walking between outbuilding bundled in a dark blue coat. From memory I walk across the large chunks of breaker rock, across the plywood remnants laid across frozen mud and up three wooden steps. There's something brown and furry in front of the door. When Titus opens the door I see it's the puppy recently acquired hoping for a warm night in front of the cook stove. The resident black and white mutt has retired to a warmer place in the barn.

"I hope that's not a wild animal in front of your door," I tell Titus when he answers my knock. "Naw, just a coyote," he quips. I think about the pile of scat in our back yard. I haven't seen the neighbor's dogs outside since January and then, only when Ron is watering the horses. A coyote has marked our territory. I mentally note to keep a closer eye on the cat at dusk.

Inside the farmhouse, the kitchen is warm and cozy. The children are gathered around the table or next to Mom by the cook stove. One daughter is propped against the back wall behind the cook stove, reading. There's a Coleman gas lamp burning quietly at the ceiling. Mom is holding a warm towel against her throat. She's not feeling well. The two youngest and an older daughter are coloring in books, reaching into a box filled with colored pencils. While everyone is involved in their own business, they listen as Titus and I talk about hogs. Occasionally a daughter will smile at my humorous mention of wanting to be a wurst maker. Titus corrects my garbled pronunciation. "The only German I know," I mention, " is how to count to three." I leave out the parts about learning to swear proficiently watching relatives playing cards when I was little.

We make a deal to butcher a hog. I'll contact a local farmer who'll drop it off at the Amish. Thirty years ago, my dad and I cut up hogs I'd raised on a small farm. I left the killing and cleaning part to a local slaughter house. Now, I'll be involved in the whole process from start to finish. One of my teachers-an American Indian elder once remarked about the benefits of putting your own self into a project. In real estate terms it's called sweat equity.

We raise our own food. We try to keep the food chain short. It may be edible podded soybeans, fresh organic tomatoes, farm raised potatoes, Amish chickens or in this case local pork. When we have dinner, it is not pre-packaged nor from a long distance. Our organic farmer neighbors-the ones that moved away to California to raise medical marijuana- often were pressured by a community of organic snobs to change their diet. Fads among the community went from vegetarian, to juice diets and finally to organic raised beef . Each was short lived. I have no forum to raise nor issues to debate. I have been a vegetarian and health conscious all my life. Like Fritz Pearls once said, I do my thing and you do yours. If we disagree,too bad, it can't be helped.

Titus' wife hands me a tub of raspberry yogurt. I thank them for the yogurt and the previous gift of cornmeal. I walk outside. I'm totally blind. Even with the low single light in the kitchen, I cannot see the steps. Then there's the brown furry lump somewhere. I stop, feel for the porch post and reach down for the step with my foot as if I'm testing the water in a pool. The blue curtains hanging in the windows effectively curtail all ambient light. I know my eyes will adjust. By the time I'm down the steps and on the breaker rock, Titus opens the door. "Are you all right," he says. "Yeah, fine," I say. He shines a light for me . I put my yogurt on the seat next to me and drive back. I keep a wary eye out for animals crossing my path.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Been to the big city. It's not important which big city. Now after a brief moment when SPRING seemed to be near, there's snow in the raw, biting wind. It's cold, cloudy and crappy. The sandwich I had with raw onion at lunch is coming back up in gaseous outbursts, complicated with a cup of strong black coffee and I'm in a snit. Where to go from here... I should post this on Despair, Devastation and Dysfunction, but I won't. Folks this won't be no Roger Gavrillo Travelogue over country roads.

Dad at 87 is the photo caption. We're at an Italian restaurant in Kenosha. The food is adequate. My Italian sausage (it looked like a turd over pasta) was made by amateurs. It's a terrible burden being a gourmet with ability to make my own fine sausage. The atmosphere is pure schlock. Kenosha, for those of you unfamiliar with the Midwest is the closest burg to Chicago. It's where the criminals from the Windy City dump the bodies. Since we're hayseeds from rural America, there's a good deal of Gollee and Gosh aka Gomer Pyle coming out of our mouths. I say that sarcastically because Dawn and I have traveled extensively and purposely chose to live where we do for the peace and quiet, serenity and ability to forget to lock our doors and not worry. But sometimes I feel deprived.

The purpose of the trip to Urbanopolis is to deliver furniture, see the Dad and take him out for dinner, stay in a mid-priced motel and run the magic fingers shower head(whoo-hoo) forever and do some shopping. Between dinner and mid-priced motel we stop at Trader Joe's and do the Golleee routine in the wine aisle. Armed with ridge cut Red Bliss Potato chips in olive oil and a bottle of Sangiovese red wine we settle down to TV. We don't have TV in Kickapoo Center. I should amend that to,"We choose not to have TV in Kickapoo Center."

This is the behemoth in our backyard. The former owner says the cables coiled in the basement as thick as a bull snake could be reconnected to obtain live feed broadband-whatever that is. We decline that, the Dish network and the local telephone company's cable TV because all are overpriced. Why pay for something I'd curse and wear out clicking the up channel button on the remote. Robins love to nest in the thingee sticking up in the middle.

To pay penance for our hedonism, I schedule a dentist appointment at 8 am the next morning. My dentist has sent every member of the family running, vowing never to return. I like him because the insurance pays for everything and I trust he won't charge me $1500 for unnecessary treatment. But he runs on and on and on and on about the most inane things. After Dr. Bob tells me about his trip "out west" in detail(he knows I've spent 5 years there) and gives me the free toothbrush, we catch a quick breakfast at a local chain eatery.

In the strip mall across from the restaurant is Penzeys Spice House. In Kickapoo Center we are spice deprived. We spend $40 on ground turmeric root, chipolte chili powder, smoked red paprika, Ancho chili powder, ground fennel seed, whole fennel seed, French grey sea salt, fresh whole India Tellicherry peppercorns and an assortment of marjoram, garlic powder, Rojo sauce each with a description of their origin and use. We lose ourselves in NPR on the 3 hour drive home. Midway we stop at the Shell station for fresh eggrolls ala the Hmong owners-actually made by tiny Hmong Grandmothers.

This is my step dad. He's the man behind who I am today. The woman is his wife and my crazy Yugoslavian step mother. He's also the reason for my having to end this snit and travel to the Amish over dark country night roads to talk with Titus about hog butchering. The Dad at the beginning belongs to Dawn, my wife. He's a good man,also.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Figure Study

Figure Study #6
acrylic on canvas-16X20 unframed
work in progress 14 February 2009

Unlike some artists Dawn is not starving. Like many, she works a day job. She cares for the elderly as an activities director and is a certified elder care specialist with credentials to dispense medical prescriptions and OTC meds. She is one of three people designated as support staff which gives her the dubious distinction of being on-call alternate weekends and some weekdays. When something goes wrong, Dawn is there.

The position of activities director is a challenging task of providing quality of life experiences for the residents. Her fine arts background and creative knack for arts and crafts intrigues the seniors under her care. The most recent holiday-Valentine's Day-Dawn had the residents use their skills to decorate sugar cookies. Afternoon teas, special guests performances, lectures by well known writers and the usual array of pumpkin carving, tree decorating, garden planting make the lives of the elderly in the assisted living facility in the town nearest Kickapoo Center more than just card playing and TV viewing. It doesn't leave much time for Dawn. Many of her projects carry on into the evening where she provides the basics for the next day's activity.

There's been a gap from Figure Study #7 and this current work. For relaxation, Dawn knits. She's currently making herself a bulky cable knit sweater. I tease her that the sweater will keep her warm in June. When she announced that she had an idea for a painting , I was mildly amused.

Watching a DVD movie, Dawn asks, "Have you looked at my painting?" I made some off hand comment, since I avoid the studio in the colder months. It has a separate heating system in addition to two tiny heat ducts from the wood/propane furnace. The previous owner complained of exorbitant electric bills. The real estate brokers showing the house when it was on the market would fiddle with the separate electric thermostat in the studio. The owner would come to check on the vacant house to find the studio at over 90 degrees in the summer. I learned the wall thermostat was defective when entertaining a crew one Saturday night. The house was steamy. The heat in the main portion of the house was at it's normal miserly setting. I replaced the thermostat. Since 2005 the electric heat has never been used.

So I'm heading for dangerous territory. It's not good to ignore your wife. Then, a few days later I glance at her easel. The painting is transformed from a shocking statement of color into a mysterious abstract figure study of unusual hue. In a very short period of time, Dawn has taken an inspiration to completion. The abstract nature of the work provides the underlying theme of all the works I exhibit in my on-line art gallery.
Art with feeling and presence.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Polish Sausage

I spent an hour this morning looking for my Step-Dad's polish sausage recipe. He's been gone for a quarter century now. Every year at Christmas, I tell my sisters, I will make Polish sausage. It hasn't happened. Honing my culinary skills, I recently made what Mom called Roll 'em ups. I think the proper name is beef rouladen. I improvised, as usual, rolling thin slices of beef around equally thin slices of smoked pork shoulder and sauteing the beef rolls dipped in a special flour mix I keep in a gallon plastic bag. Then while we watched a Showtime TV series on disc, the rouladen simmered in our own organic tomatoes and red wine. Dinner was a crunchy salad with sunflowers kernels and French bread dipped in Extra Virgin Olive oil. The success of the rouladen made me think of the sausage recipe.

My hunt involved sorting through dozens of old notebooks and journals on a dusty bookshelf in my office. Because I was in the middle of grinding pork loin, I didn't have the luxury of re-reading some of these ancient writings.

After lunch in which Dawn and I sample the polish sausage recipe, I read an entry in the journal dated June,1980. The title was Mertz' Cedar Crest Resort. Warning. You may want to put a little distance between yourself and this entry. The wafts of garlic from the polish sausage are rolling in waves across my monitor. Here it is verbatim.

It all began as... 5 paperbacks, one horror story, 2 twelve packs of beer, one thunderstorm, 4 perch, one doz, night crawlers, innumerable interruptions in the middle of the night, 8,000 mosquitoes that appear regularly at 9:15 pm, 3 pessimists, one Born Again tie tack, 1800 acres of water 9 feet deep, Three Lakes, one 45 minute horseback ride for $10, too many Japanese made Indian dolls, LEECHES, a kid sleepwalking ( I was just fishing Dad), 2 gallons of wine.

The overlook: 12,000 lily pads, tube tops, loons, herons, baby ducks, bullheads, eagles sunken duck blinds, log trucks, Camp Luther for girls, no swings, undrinkable water, millions of coincidences, hundreds of smiles, pine oar blisters, pine needles, boyhood smells, disposable diapers and deer flies.

One hundred twenty hours, 7,200 minutes in the North woods. Near on alone.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mud Season

In the middle of the night, I have an inspiration of a fantastic subject for the blog. As I lay in bed, I wonder how I can tone it down for a G rated blog. It isn't what yo0u think, although the kiss in this inspirational moment needs special treatment. I do not want blog police knocking down my door in the middle of the night. What would be difficult to portray in words is the feeling, the atmosphere and the sensations of the moment. Now, hours later, much of the magic of the moment is lost. For a moment this morning, I felt a kind of deja vu sipping coffee in the kitchen of the Amish farm.

At the invitation of the Mr., I'm off to his farm before 8 am with two 4X4 pine posts. The previous day, he shows me a rustic pine table constructed from barn wood. It is classically elegant and simple. Knots, nail holes and other imperfections give it character. Amber varnish gives it a rich mocha cast. The legs are intriguing. Titus takes 4X4 timbers and tapers them in a Mission style clean cut simplicity. He will show me how he makes the legs early the next morning.

He meets me on the front porch after I pull up to the workshop. The mild temperatures of the past few days have left pools of water everywhere. To combat the onslaught of mud season, his wife has laid a square portion of carpet outside the front entrance. In the workshop, a complex arrangement of gears, rubber belts and pulleys all connected to a gasoline engine run a table saw, planer and several other industrial type woodworking tools. "This is my last woodworking project," I tell him. Our electric bill soars over $200 for the past month. Despite two electric barn heaters in the workshop, the inside temperature never reaches 40 degrees on a January day. I work with gloves and a numb brain. My table legs are cockeyed and flimsy. I've constructed many tables in the past and never had one cause so much difficulty. Part of the problem is application. Each time I set out for the workshop, several days have elapsed. I need to review my progress, plan ahead and work carefully. Something always goes awry. Then, there's a shed full of unsold furniture. In May, the Amish are holding a quilt and furniture auction. It's my one chance to sell a few tables, benches and the occasional rustic shelf.

The legs are tapered in two directions with the outside of the legs-the part the viewer notices-constructed at right angles. We measure the top part of the leg that will be attached to the skirt and cut a recessed joint. I offer to help with chores to offset the time and cost Titus spends on the legs. He quips that he'll wait until he has a particularly large mountain of manure to haul. I bring some whole bean coffee along just in case he refuses my offer to help. When it's all over we walk back to the house for a cup of coffee. His wife is simultaneously making bread and cooking lunch. One daughter is ironing while several others are sewing. The youngest daughter is lying quietly near the stove involved in her own personal reverie. Here's where my dream intervenes.

Titus tells me of traveling and staying at a motel. He can't sleep. Home he says is absolute quiet. There is no refrigerator hum, no water dripping or mechanical sounds of any kind. I mention a cricket hiding behind the Coke machine at the Desert Winds Motel outside of Blythe, CA on a business trip. Titus says the cricket wouldn't bother him but the Coke machine would likely cause a sleep loss as it did me.

The coffee is hot. A daughter in the next room- a large open space connected to the kitchen, some would call a parlor, is singing sweetly. She is adding stitches to a quilt. Her voice is soft, almost angelic. Another daughter out of view joins the song. Their voices are quiet. I cannot make out the words. As the voices merge and emerge into into various waves of contralto and soprano, I lose myself in their song. I strain to keep up with the conversation. The song rises. The melody is a hymn. In that moment I think of the vibration and song that's imprinted on the quilt. How wonderful this piece of Amish artwork would be in a bedroom. In the warm glow of dawn the bed would sing to the sleeper. Outside the twitter of chickadees and sparrows would act as counterpoint. It's the feeling I cannot reconstruct from my night movie with the soft kiss from someone above me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The highway makes a broad sweep to left at the base of the hill in the background. The mist in this May picture makes it difficult to see the white strip of pavement arching behind the trees lining the river. The river takes a twisted path east, then south and finally due west, all in 25 acres or less. It is the crookedest river in the state. To reach the next town 6 miles away, a canoeist would spend the greater part of the day. Driving is a five minute jaunt. On Sundays the highway is quiet. A stainless steel bulk tank turns off Count G & I and heads for Viola. Our neighbor-not the closest one-tends a 400 head dairy farm. He and his helper have spent the winter spreading manure in the fields around us. The lazy former owner of the dairy farm, when we first meet he tells us that he was in the navy on a submarine-would pile the caca into a large slurry vat. Passing by the farm, the casual visitor would notice what looks like a really huge open silo about six feet high and fifty feet across filled with liquid waste. Then, there is the smell.

In the first few episodes of musings of a resident of the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin, I would add the separate title of Life in Kickapoo Center at the Turn of the Century. I am a clever hack. The "turn of the century". The year 2000. "Kickapoo Center" a town that ceased to exist at the turn of the 20th century. Then I got smart. What's the phrase: Too old too soon, too late schmart. I add the schmart in tribute to the German ancestors who preceded me. I consider myself a mixed breed. Part French, part German, Polish by association, part Mexican, Scottish and Native American if you believe in the Hindu philosophy of reincarnation. I add the moniker to the masthead. So, this is my mental wandering around the territory.

On any given day I am at a loss for clever words. Again another phrase comes to mind: Clever words bring forth no buttered turnips. It is also the title of one of my written onslaughts to friends and anyone who'd care to open the mail in pre-blogging days. So, I have no clever words.

At 6:30 am precisely El Gato awakes me with a single meow. He climbs on top of me and licks my face. I lick his face back. Although my tongue isn't as rough as his, he gets the idea. Not wanting more wet fur, he stops scouring my nose, my forehead and my eyes. Finally he settles on Dawn's pillow, curling himself around the top of her head, feet propped on the bridge of her nose. When we get up to begin our day, he's comfortable and lazy. For awhile, I hear him snore. Or was that Dawn?

Dawn and I spend the greater portion of Sunday afternoon sanding plaster over the joints in the drywall. It's a dusty, dirty business. This will repeat itself four times. Each time it is over, I walk outside, remove my shirt and shake off dust. Dawn takes a shower upstairs. To avoid adding more dust in the air, we sweep up larges piles of gypsum, squirt Orange cleaner in the traffic areas and mop the floor with white, small terry-cloth towels. The dust at the edges will remain until we mount a final cleaning offensive . This will be a total home cleaning experience. Just imagine the Incredible Hulk taking the house by the foundation and shaking out the crap. Two air purifiers run at the "Turbo" setting to remove fine particles of dust. A box fan is propped in the new kitchen window to exhaust more dusty air. It's February. The propane furnace is the only source of heat since a wood fire turns the place into a sauna. Outside temps are in the 40's.

We could have hired someone to perform the nasty business. In fact we had someone scheduled to begin today, but changed our minds when we met Aaron, the Amish carpenter. The money we'd save could buy us a new wood furnace, a new portable drill or perhaps even a new downstairs bathroom. The carpenter we'd relieved of duty wouldn't have been as careful. He wouldn't have covered all sensitive electronic equipment with sheets of thin plastic.

On Wednesday, Dawn begins vacation. Originally, she was slotted to travel across the state to care for her 85 year old father while her sister takes a vacation. Sisty Ugler is in a snit. Her father-in-law passes away. When Dawn suggests her brother as caretaker for Dad in the 24 hours needed to travel to southern Illinois for the funeral, sister throws a fit. In a classic version of Family Feud aka Jerry Springer, Sisty Ugler doesn't trust the brother. She will not allow him in her house. The reasons are too complex. Brother lives an hour away. Dawn is four hours away. In a twenty four hour period, Dawn would travel 8 hours to care for Dad. Dad is alert and semi-responsible. He needs monitoring so that a pot isn't left on the stove for hours and help remembering to take his medication.

At first, Dawn a certified and experienced Elder Care person, suggest Dad's in-home care will take a toll on Sisty Ugler. Ugler doesn't listen. She's like her Mother-opinionated and aggressively blunt. In a restaurant she will tell you what to order. She is a sickly, semi-vegetarian and will not allow her husband to cook any meat related product in the house. She's into expensive faux Japanese art, purely for the braggadocio factor. There's no room for the husband's frog collection. If you suggest a favorite bistro, she'll call it crappy and tell you of a better one. Because of a prolonged period of silence, Dawn calls Sisty Ugler to confirm the vacation and subsequent care of the octagenarian. Oh, no need to bother, I have 24 hour in-home care scheduled. Dawn cancels part of the vacation and reschedules the rest. A visit to take Dad out on Valentine's Day must now be approved in advance with Sisty Ugler. The final insult to Sisty Ugler. Outcast brother will join us for dinner with Dad. I look at the encounters which obviously negatively affects my wife with amusement and disdain. We'll see how karma takes care of the problem.

Meanwhile, I wring my hands like Simon Legree. No, I'm not being devilsih. I'll rephrase that. I bounce up and down in delight-if you can imagine me bouncing. There's wood to be split and hauled. A trip to the Lacrosse for more drywall and the special-order counter-top. A trip to see the kids. Help with this. Work on that. We''ll be using Dawn's handmade soap studio as a kitchen when the final portion of the kitchen renovation begins. The studio needs tweaking for cooking activities. No, we're not going to be doing that in there or anywhere. On any given day, the mounting tasks and chores of life in the country threaten my writing avocation. Writing is a way of keeping the wolf from the door. A metaphor for loneliness that sometimes sneaks its way under the thresh hold and lurks in dark corners.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sheetrock-Part Two

A rawhide bear drum goes bouncing down the stairs. I'd taken Aaron upstairs to show him our $8,000 bathroom. On the way down he trips and tries to catch himself. The drum is hanging on the wall at left. There's no railing on the steps. One of the first things we did when moving into our old schoolhouse was remove an ugly aluminum railing. It was battleship gray and totally out of character with the rest of the decor. It was like having furniture from Ikea in an old farmhouse. Modern versus antique. Aaron catches himself before he hits the carpet at bottom. "Are you all right? " I ask. "Yeah," is his reply.

Later, I point out a piece of paneling I was unable to remove from a beam near the ceiling. The paneling was installed before the ceiling was completed. Therefore, the nails holding the top part of the cheap faux wood paneling cannot be removed. Insert !@# here in abundance from my days as a demolition expert. In desperation I attach a vise grips to the bottom of the 12"X 36" piece of pasteboard veneer and wail away at the vice-grips with my hammer. All I'm able to remove is the small chunk of paneling that the vice grips is attached to. Aaron is having more success with the paneling. It's loose and about to come out of the groove between the wall and ceiling. He gives it a good yank. The piece flies out across the room. I look at his knuckles. They are bleeding profusely. "I guess I should have removed the nails first before I pulled it," he says.

One of the modern features installed in the schoolhouse was low voltage wiring. I'm not much of an electrician, so I can't describe low voltage wiring-its pros or cons. What I do know is that we have recessed lights in the living room ceiling with no switch. The hanging light in the kitchen has no wall switch. To turn it on, there's a toggle switch at the bottom of the fixture. At the foot of the steps to the second floor is another no-switch light. All are recessed into the ceiling and have a square frosted glass cover. In fall, the Japanese beetle migration causes them to find cracks and crevices in the sidewalls of the house. Over the winter they wiggle their way into light fixtures where they die from the heat. Frequently, I stand on a chair and vacuum the light fixtures. Aaron has removed the cellulose ceiling tiles exposing wiring. It appears that we can rewire the ceiling fixture with a wall switch. I stand in the basement at the circuit breaker paneling yelling upstairs, OK?" Aaron is directed to say Yes or No. When I get a "yes", that means the correct circuit is off. We drill, pull wiring through the walls to the ceiling fixture and connect all black wires, all white wires and ground wires. In the basement, I push the breaker. It sizzles and pops. Every step of the wiring process must be reversed because the "hot" wire to the ceiling fixture comes from another direction. A lengthy discussion of cursing follows. Not once do I hear a profane word coming from Aaron's mouth throughout the course of the day. I find it ironic that an Amish man knows more about electrical wiring than I know.

I'm amazed at Aaron's technical proficiency with machinery. He looks at my chop saw in the garage workshop and points out that the safety cover is not working properly. It doesn't cover the blade completely. He unscrews the back cover of the saw and removes sawdust blocking the up hinge so that the cover is fully covering the blade in the up position. My lack of carpentry experience stands out like an Eskimo in Key West. I feel like of of the Three Stooges- Shemp. The one with greasy hair across the face.

All the Sheetrock is stored in the garage. In the course of the first day, we carry eight, 4X8 sheets of wall board from garage to the house. The outside temperature started out below zero early in the morning. When I picked Aaron at his place, one of the cats is sitting outside his workshop, blinking in the warm sun. I'm wearing a long sleeve T-shirt and a denim shirt over it. Aaron is dressed in blue work pants, suspenders and a thin cotton short sleeve shirt. Inside the garage, it doesn't get above 45 degrees with the electric heater running on high. He doesn't seem to notice the cold. Once, at Titus' place one of the daughters is walking across "breaker rock" barefoot. She walks with grace and unconcern, while I carefully tread my way over the sharp rocks.

I have an admiration of the for these Amish people. Yes there may be some not-so-good Amish out there, but not the ones I know. Titus tells me that someone stole money from their little country store in the run-down farmhouse next to their new home. The culprits were later apprehended. The thieves had a map of the Amish community and went from farm to farm stealing money and goods. Rotten apples, I'd call them. Dawn is thrilled that the walls are covered so quickly. She notes that the kitchen seems bigger-lighter than the paneled version.
Aaron patiently explains the "mudding" process, plastering over holes from the drywall screws and taped joints. His last words to me as the second day ends are, " You won't hurt my feelings, if you finish the plastering and sanding by yourself." After three days of dry sanding. dust and aching joints from climbing a ladder and repetitive side to side motion, I get the humor in his words.

Friday, February 6, 2009


The small town 2 miles to the north hosts a Horse and Colt show yearly. My neighbors and fifty per cent of the locals own horses. I seldom see them riding their horses. Hay burners, one man calls them. I look at my photo from the 2006 Horse and Colt Show and notice the horse at left is sticking his tongue at me. The orange fence separating me from the beasts of burden is humorous. Bill and Ted( I give them the names) could walk through the pseudo barrier without blinking an eye. Only the Amish put their horses to good use.

Aaron and I are standing in Titus' barn. It's a picture straight out of the PBS series about the English veterinarian-James Herriot. The beams for the ceiling are rough hewn logs. If I stretched my neck, my baseball cap would touch the beams. The light is dim since there is only one window in the feed storage area. There are several empty stalls about six feet wide. When I say empty, I mean void of cattle or horses. Cats-tons of cats-are curled in the hay and manure. Tiger tabbies, pure white cats, black and white mixes mingle in the stalls. The cats pay no attention to the dogs in the barn. Off to the right, one of the daughters is moving buckets-performing various chores. She's dressed in the Amish uniform of blue coat, skirt, rubber boots and kerchief over her hair. The newest addition to the family, a calf is standing in front of us. He(or she) is covered in muck. The fuzzy red puppy is barking at the opposite door. Titus walks in with a straw hat and blue coat. His beard is long and gray. He shushes the dog, so he can hear my question.

"March," I tell him. "We'll put off the kitchen cabinets until the first week in March." One of the work horses wants to come into the barn. He looks over the double Dutch door. There's food somewhere, he's sure. The red fuzzy puppy barks again. Aaron is Titus' brother. He's been helping me apply Sheetrock to the studs of our bare kitchen. I should amend that to: I'm helping him with the Sheetrock. Titus teases us when I mention how happy I am with the amount of work completed in one day. At 6 foot 3 inches Aaron stands placidly next to me. He's used to Titus' humor. "Did you offer him coffee,"Titus says. I reply that I forgot my manners, but add if I did we would have gotten even more work done. In one 7 hour day, we've covered all the walls except for those behind the counter with 3/8th's inch wallboard. Then the entrance door opens and another couple walks in. The banter and greetings are repeated. It's nearing five o'clock and Aaron needs to get back home. We walk past two white geese hissing and honking for the short ride across the highway to Aaron's place.

Communication with my Amish friends is straight out of the 19th century. On an egg purchase mission, I mention the lack of progress on the kitchen remodel. Titus tells me I could hire his brother for less money than the carpenter I have contacted. The project began in late September. I call the remolding crew owner who has worked on our old school house for years, for us and the former owner. The boss forgets about me. A month passes and I bump into one of his workers at the Gays Mills Apple Festival. I ask him if he'll work separately with me. Weeks pass. In theory January and February are slow times in the carpentry business. Any inside project is a welcome addition. My carpenter is busy on other projects. Finally, I send Titus a letter with a picture of our place asking him to contact his brother. I'm working alone on my kitchen project, removing old paneling and tired cabinets. On my next visit for eggs Titus tells me his brother lives across the road. "Just go there and talk to him. He's just like us-familiar with English visiting his home."

Aaron's house is white like many Amish farms in the area. There's a circular drive, a small red barn behind the house and a slump block building-formerly a school-that is his workshop. I knock at the door. "Are you Aaron?" I ask. He invites me in. The kitchen is busy with people cutting up beef that Titus and Aaron butchered the day before. There's piece of plywood over the table littered with scraps of beef. One man with a red beard is sitting on a stool and trimming fat from various cuts of meat, tossing the scraps into a bucket. Aaron's wife is tossing strips of beef into a flour mix. Kids are playing in the next room. I describe the project briefly and hand him my card. He tells me he'll call me next week. I know that there is a family down the road who help Titus and their family. They have a cell phone that makes communication easier. At first I questioned the anomaly. Titus tells me in days before cell phones, they'd send post cards to people who were on their list for organically raised chicken. The process would take hours.

When Aaron calls, we set Monday at 8 am for the project start.

to be continued...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


White Wolf is a portrait created a decade ago by Dawn's 85 year old father. Foster is a mild mannered man who delivered mail for 35 years, worked a second job as a doughnut maker and retired from biting Wisconsin winters to a condo is Sun City.

In my urban trading post back in the 90's it was a signature piece.

For one, the business was called White Thunder Wolf Trading Co. In a naming ceremony by a pseudo Native American pipe carrier-one of those new age wannabes- she looks at me as the pipe passes around the circle and says, "Your name is White Thunder Wolf. If you accept that name repeat it back to me." In a typical Gavrillo faux pas I reply, " White Thunder Wolf?" I forgot that ironic skepticism can't be conveyed like it can be in print with a large question mark at the end of the phrase. Subsequently, I was renamed by a real Native American. I used the flat lander name for the business.

The second special feature of the painting is that the eyes follow you as you walk through the store. Yes. I'm not being sarcastic. Straight out of Hairy Potter( deliberate typo).

I've been in La-La land. I use the phrase to denote anyplace but here. Time is of the essence today. I have all the time in the world and none at all. I'm astounded for the lack of a better descriptor at the unique, interesting and creative posts at several blogs I'm following. I miss being apart (deliberate typo) of the creative online energy of these people. Tunnel vision in February causes me to scoff at my stupidity. I complain about missing a trip to the town dump to attend a wine festival at the Wollershiem Winery. In the overflow parking lot below the winery facilities, I do a Gomer Pyle gape...Golleee, at a woman in tight black stretch pants and high heels walking toward the limestone buildings straight out of Tuscany. "I'm so deprived." I tell the person standing next to me. In my part of the world, the requisite day wear is muck boots and sweatpants(denim if it's really cold). He replies, "I'm not stopping you from wearing women's clothes." We share a hearty laugh.

I must go. I'm leaving the cape and red tights in the closet for now. The only one leaping any buildings in the immediate future will be The Pooch showing off in late afternoon as he jumps from the wood piled at the rear of the lawn shed; skirts the 12 inches of snow on the steel roof and looks longingly at the black walnut trees next to the shed. He calculates the speed and distance needed to reach the lowest fork of the tree and decides it's safer to jump on my shoulder