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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bullying Comes to the Valley…

Swan HeavenThroughout the Christmas season most evenings we take a break from the rigors of the day and watch a Christmas movie. Call it our movie advent, if you will. One of our favorites is “The Christmas Story,” or the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” movie. A running storyline involves a couple of back alley ruffians: Scut Farkas (“He had yellow eyes…my God, he had yellow eyes…) and “Grover Dill, his crummy little toadie” who waylay their victims on their way home from school. For these two urchins it’s all about intimidation, harassment, and knuckle sandwiching their peers. In short, they are the neighborhood bullies—or at least until Scut himself gets knuckled under by Ralphie.

Bullying has been around since bigger and smaller/stronger and weaker were invented, and until recently such antisocial behavior has been ignored or disregarded because, for one, it’s always been a fact of human existence, and secondly, it’s hard to root out and eradicate. In the past, public school grounds and classrooms have been the stage for much bullying; however, the internet and social media networks have allowed mean-spiritedness free rein and in many cases online harassment has become downright vicious. Cyber bullying it is called these days and in several instances the end result has been youthful tragedy. Though most schools now have a “no tolerance” policy on bullying, it persists and probably is as prevalent as ever. Besides, the internet is beyond the Public School’s jurisdiction. Even government appears stymied where online intimidation is concerned.

Looking back on my school years, I don’t remember being bullied. Sure, I had a set to with a classmate once in a while, but no bear-baiting (the Brewster Bears…) occurred that to this day has me experiencing post traumatic stress nightmares or cold sweats. I do remember two classmates, brother and sister, who because of their home life, were ridiculed and teased throughout their school years--not bullied in the physical sense, but bullied emotionally certainly. I owned a peripheral share of their torment, I’m not proud to say, and not just because I didn’t come to their defense, either.

For a couple years in my early teens I took to bullying a handful of younger ranch kids, would start in on them as soon as the school bus pulled away. I would terrorize these unfortunates down the long driveway and still to this day, I’m puzzled at my behavior. Perhaps I bullied them because they were younger; perhaps I bullied them because I could; perhaps they were just there. In his memoir “The Thanksgiving Visitor” the writer Truman Capote recalls being tormented by a bully named Odd Henderson. In the midst of one bullying session where Odd had Capote shoved against a wall and was battering him about, the boy asked his assailant just what he had done to be so disliked. Odd replied, “You’re a sissy and I’m just straightening you out.” I don’t believe I perpetrated my misbehavior on my fellow ranch mates for that reason.

The boss’s son was among the kids I bullied, and to get at the roots of the problem, the boss called for a summit meeting between him, my dad and me. Then, like now, I couldn’t explain my behavior, was sullen to the point of being disrespectful. The meeting resolved nothing and amounted to little more than an embarrassment for Dad ( I received a scathing earful afterwards, every word of which I certainly deserved). A day or two later I exited the school bus with vengeance (or my own embarrassment) on my mind, snatched the boss’s kid from the bus’s exhaust, wrestled him out into the orchard and shoved his head in an irrigation ditch. After he was muddied enough, I released him and continued on home where I was sure later that night I would pay dearly for my bullying baptismal.

Days passed. No ax fell. No retribution. No punishment. I was spared, I realized, because my victim, in spite of becoming an ingredient folded into a mud pie, never said a word about the incident. I never bullied him again, and you might say a long friendship forged in a ditch began. I believe that singular incident ended my bullying career. My friend’s keeping mum appealed to my nobler instincts, I guess.trumpeters landing

Perhaps it was my involvement in such antisocial behavior that to this day I’m hypersensitive where bullying of any kind is concerned. Just the other day I was witness to some bullying in the Valley. Although it was bullying of the avian kind, bullying it was nonetheless. As Gladys and I wobbled along the lower Loop Road adjacent to Frohnings’ cornfield, I spied some large bird activity and stopped to watch the commotion. Three bald eagles were bullying a smaller bird. At first I thought their victim was a seagull but soon realized it was a lesser raptor, a hawk of some kind. Too large to be a northern harrier, I thought, and noting the longer wings and swept back forewing, believed the eagles’ target to be an osprey (“fish hawks,” my brother calls them). The eagles were trying to bully the hawk out of the sky. It would no more escape the talons of one eagle when another would take its place. At one point the eagles nearly downed their victim. The osprey was the lighter bird, the more agile flier and frantically sought more altitude for safety. The lumbering eagles tried to match the osprey’s climb but were slowly left behind. To my relief the beleaguered bird gained the high ground and flew off to the southwest to fish again another day. Deprived of their sport, the four eagles (a fourth had joined the trio, too late to participate in the fun) dispersed. Now that there was no more to see, Gladys and I moved along. A pair of the eagles flapped their way to a tall cottonwood tree by the Lower Loop bridge and roosted there. Gladys gave them a scolding ting-a-ling as we passed beneath.

In town years ago I witnessed another spectacle of avian bullying, a vicious attack by a flock of crows on a snowy owl. The owl had perched in a tall fir on a branch that offered little cover. Owls and crows are natural enemies and apparently the conspicuous white silhouette of the owl attracted a keen-eyed black marauder. The following raucous assault on the unfortunate owl could have been a scene right out of a Hitchcock movie. When I first noticed the fracas, only three crows were tormenting their victim. Their commotion rallied crow after crow until nearly two dozen worked in concert to dislodge the owl. This they finally did and the owl took flight, heading for Buck Island and more cover. The last I saw of it, the owl was a harried white speck in a maelstrom of swirling black crows at least fifty strong. This was bird bullying at its worst, and I was helpless to stop it. I’ve often wondered if the hapless owl survived the onslaught of so many vicious, black beaks. Little wonder the collective term for a flock of crows is “a murder.”

Given the fact that bullying flourishes in the world of humankind, it should come as no surprise that it exists in the natural world, too. Thus the hierarchy in a flock of chickens gives us the term “henpecked.” (Interesting, isn’t it, that the word in usage nearly always precedes “husband,” a curious crossover from the world of animals to our own.) Pack animals have the “alpha” male, the leader of the pack, who bullies his way to “top dog” and must continue to bully to stay there.

Back to the bullying eagles…three of the four were juveniles obviously up to no good, full of the delinquency of youth. The fourth displayed the snowy white head and tail of a fully mature adult. Now, let me ask you, what kind of adult is it that not only participates in bullying but models bad behavior for its young?Cascade winter

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stalking the Wily Christmas Tree: From the Archives…

We're treedThere are those difficult decisions one has to make in life. And then there’s choosing just the right Christmas tree to steer the household through the Christmas season. Last year I selected the perfect tree from Dale Reiner’s Christmas arboretum. Armed with the formidable knowledge that “there’s never two of anything,” off I ventured to attempt the impossible.

It is not easy to arrive at the appropriate mindset necessary to search for that important Christmas icon. I had intended to begin this year’s quest a month earlier, call Dale and ask if I could wander through his inventory, select and tag a tree for harvest later. That never happened, and I’m sure you’re not surprised:we defer life’s difficult decisions as long as possible.

Now I’m up against an inflexible timeline…family coming for the holidays…the pressure’s on for me to provide, provide…. But as I drive up to Reiner’s command center, I discover the lot is closed! “Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday” the sign reads. Today is Wednesday. Who knows if I’ll even be among the living two days from now, let alone having to “get in the mood” for tree shopping again. Mumbling a few words, none in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I head back up the driveway. But just then Father Christmas smiles on me; here comes Dale in his white utility truck. He’s about to pass me by but a depleted honey jar at home jogs his memory: here’s next year’s supply about to drive off. Dale stops, backs up.

“Reiner,” I complain, “How can you make any money when your operation is closed?” (Forgetting the while that I’ve been absent from the workforce for eleven years and every day is a weekend for me.) Dale explains there’s not much demand for U-Cut trees midweek, but since I’m here, and he’s come to feed his cows, he agrees to let me have the run of the place, select a tree, and either tag it for later or haul it off today. Soon I’m armed with a bow saw heading off to do battle with a forest of fir while Dale chucks hay at his hungry beef.

Douglas fir can spurt three to five feet of growth per season, and these trees were already tall last year. Now as soon as I enter the grove, the trees shut out the winter light. I feel much like Lewis and Clark must have felt when they explored the Pacific Northwest. (But then they had a trail to follow, didn’t they? Or was it a trail they blazed?) Where the branches were shaded, ice droplets on the needles from last night’s frost sprinkled ice water on me. Once into the forest, squeezing my way between the spitting trees, I have trouble distinguishing one tree from the next. I spot one promising prospect after another but think there’s sure to be a better one a few trees further and push on. When I do, I lose track of my last prime candidate. At last I find just the right tree and am about to take the saw to it when just in time I realize what I’m about to cut is a giant bull thistle.

As I continue thrashing about, tripping over stumps of the deceased and stumbling into potholes, I remember my parting words to Dale: “If my pickup is still here two days from now, come looking for me, will you; I still should be pretty well preserved.” Dale replied, “You know, only two types of folks visit the tree farm: old timers like you and me who continue the tradition of selecting and cutting down their own trees, and young couples with children wishing to start their own Christmas tradition.”As Dale’s words echo, fade away, my memory rushes back across the years. 

Late December, 1969. Winthrop, Washington. My first year of teaching. Three or four p.m. on a snow-covered hillside above the Chewuck River. We had our one dollar tree permit, a carpenter’s saw, and most importantly, the spirit and energy of youth. And that’s what we needed to trudge upslope through shin deep snow in the dwindling light to search among the towering Ponderosa pines for that perfect fir tree. Even youthful exuberance and stamina were challenged by the vast wilderness, encroaching darkness, towering pines and slippery upslope. The firs, seeded by a few intruders, were scattered among the Ponderosa. Whenever we found a young fir, we cast a critical eye over it until at last the impending darkness forced a choice (or was it, perhaps, the fresh set of cougar tracks we had crossed earlier?). Among the massive trunks of pine our little fir appeared a dwarf, hardly more than a smudge against the snowy hillside.

Snow had begun to fall and in the glooming twilight a few easy swipes of the saw brought the little fir down. We half dragged, half rolled our prize to the road where our red VW beetle hunkered in the unplowed snow. When the tree came to rest beside the car, it was obvious our little “sapling” was not only longer than the car, but also taller. In fact if you stood on the tree side of the car, its beetle top was barely visible above the branches.Without the cathedral pines and the vastness of the countryside to trim its scale, the tree had appeared only in miniature. Now alongside the VW our tree seemed almost a grove. We wrestled it to the roof of the little red car, tied trunk to rear bumper, tip to the front and started home. The snow swirled in the headlights, and we could hardly see the road for the forest. Feeling like we were at the helm of a log truck, we rolled slowly along the unplowed road.

We returned home tired—as if we had worked a day in the woods—only to confront another challenge: our little Christmas tree would hardly fit through the front door of the house. Unless we did some serious trimming of branches and cutting of trunk, we would have to decorate our Christmas icon in the horizontal orientation like a beached whale. I went to work with the carpenter’s saw to fit the tree to living room proportions. Even when we were able to stand it upright, there wasn’t enough headroom for either angel or star. But we were young and poor, had no furniture to speak of other than a king size bed; the house was rented; and that tree filled up the small living room, made it bright, made it cozy. Who needed furniture with a house brimful of woodsy fragrance and the Christmas spirit!

Years come and years go and Christmas trees with them; however, some stand out in memory, unique in some way, special (like our Charlie Brown twisted scoliosis tree of years ago), but that Christmas and the Winthrop tree, the tree that blanketed a car and filled a house, bring a pleasant wash of memory this time of year…and so….Home from the woods

It’s a nice tree I select from Reiner’s forest, worth every ounce of honey in the quart jar I’ve exchanged for it. The only challenge now, once the tree is in the stand, is finding a place to display it. Elbowing a spot for the tree amidst all the furniture, it seems, becomes more challenging each year .   

Lost in the tree

Tree 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Quiet, Well-Lighted Valley…

Beebe light show

About this time last year, I wrote a post about the Valley’s CSQ (“Getting Lit in the Valley,” 12/19). With less than a week to go before all deadlines must be met, the decorating, shopping—all the essential preparations—brought successfully to conclusion, I thought it time to assess the Valley’s CSQ for this season.

My observations? I believe Broers’ Farms lit up first this year: house and barn lined with cheerful lights I can see across the Valley from our place (now that the leaves have left the nursery stock). Broers' Farms ChristmasI shared this information with a couple Valley neighbors, told them the CSQ award goes out to Ed this year. I was soon set straight, however, and informed it was Ed’s son who trimmed the place. Regardless, it was a family effort and that award still belongs to Broers’ Farms.

For sheer bulbage and lumens per square feet, the Beebes win again. The other night I drove past their place and thought for a moment I had stumbled on the movie set for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the scene where that giant musical spacecraft lights up the entire lid of Devil’s Tower. (Those who go for big light displays often count the numbers of bulbs they string. One display I heard of tallied over one hundred seventy thousand lights and took six weeks to set up. I wonder if Matt knows how many lights he has strung around his place?)

Somehow a lone reindeer became separated from its herd and is now fenced in by candy canes and grazing away on Gramma Frohning’s lawn.Gramma F's I see Kevin Olsen has adorned the eaves of his little house with strands of Christmassy red and green lights, giving me some regrets I didn’t opt for the same instead of my alternating whites and blues.Kevin Olsen 's Christmas

I mentioned in a previous post that with a little bit of encouragement, Brett and Megan De Vries might be persuaded to light up their little corner of the Valley this season by stringing some lights on the old Streutker residence. Now there’s no need to mention where that encouragement came from, but I saw Brett the other day and stopped by for a chat. Just a few short days later I was gratified to see the old home’s eaves lined with lights, and there was Brett again. When I complimented him on his venture into outdoor illumination, Brett told me some old guy had walked by his place a while back and scolded him for his lack of Christmas spirit. Apparently Megan got wind of the information. The next thing you know their place is lit and in grand style, too—LED lights that twinkle from all four corners of the house. (Brett informed me Jerald only strung lights on the streetside of their place; Megan, however, wouldn’t be satisfied until the eaves were surrounded with twinkle.) Snowflakes drift down the big corner window next to this year’s Christmas tree. I asked Brett how he expected me to watch my favorite Christmas programs with that tree blocking my view of his big, flat screen t.v.Lighting the corner

In fact encouragement wandered on down the road to the Tropical Blends espresso stand on the corner. Two days later I noticed strands of festive icicle lights dangling from the eaves. A nice job, I wouldn’t be surprised, that warranted an increase of latte traffic, .

Oh, let’s not forget to mention the Jim Werkhovens have gone au naturel this year. Over the shuffle of the year, something happened to last seasons’ aluminum Christmas tree. Yes, Werkhovens have “gone green” this year. It’s good to see they’ve brought a little of the piney outdoors indoors. That metal tree is flashy and festive, true, but aluminum just doesn’t have that evergreen fragrance does it, Jim?

So The Ripple brings you great tidings! Not only has the The Valley mustered up this year, I believe it has out mustered last year.Lower Loop Christmas

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas and the “Ex” Factor…

The Ex factorFrom The Ripple’s editorial page:

Because I was running low on inexpensive Christmas cards (no, you read it right: Christmas cards), I’m standing in front of the discount boxed cards (50 % off) at Freddies. I could save even more if I recycled the cards like an old friend of mine. She saves her cards from year to year, cuts each in two, discards the right side--the sentiment half--writes her own message on the back of the left, and sends it off. Two cycles from one card. I’m not quite there yet, but at the end of the season, I just might take the scissors to this year’s collection of cards and have a good variety from which to choose next year.

Ah, Christmas cards (no mistake…I meant Christmas cards), a dying tradition, I’m afraid. Perhaps the expense: the cost of a first class postal stamp…and then there’s the cost of the cards themselves. But every year the holiday season seems to demand more of us and so fewer and fewer cards come. It may just be a matter of priorities; in the face of all the more urgent preparations, sending cards could easily be shuffled to the bottom of the to-do list.

Every year during Christmas card time (yes, Christmas again), one of my pet peeves comes down out of the attic with the wrapping paper and tree decorations. It’s such a trivial little annoyance it hardly seems worth the mention, but in keeping with the spirit of the season, I’ll mention it anyway. If you are going to take the trouble to buy cards, put them in envelopes, address them, apply the appropriate postage, and send them off…if you’re willing to make that sort of effort, can’t you extend yourself a bit more and write a personal note from your family to ours? The card’s sentiment plus a “Jane and John Doe” seems to say: “There, that chore’s done. Now let’s move on to the important stuff.” At least including a few extra words helps to make that agenda less obvious. It doesn’t have to be a holiday form letter chronicling the year gone by, just a few sentences—a paragraph, even—sharing a bit of your family’s life with ours. Or, send nothing at all. Just keep us in your thoughts; it’s one and the same.

By the way, have you noticed the “Christmas Card” is an endangered species these days? More and more you find the “Merry Christmas” sentiment exchanged for “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” Now to me, there’s more at issue here than whether a card includes a personal message from the sender. It’s the “Ex” factor I’m talking about now: “Xmas” this, “Xmas” that. What’s with this movement to secularize the word “Christmas?”More Exing

Over the weekend our family attended The Bathhouse Theatre’s production of “The Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever.” The play was announced on the marquee as “The Best Xmas Pageant Ever.” I asked the event manager about the “Ex” factor, and as I suspected, it was simply a space issue: the marquee wouldn’t allow the entire word. Now this I can understand, as I do if there’s a shortage of paint or the fear of misspelling the word (transposing the “h” and “r,” for instance). Fine. These I accept; however, there are some darker undercurrents, I believe, set in motion by the hypersensitive who are ever vigilant for the slightest excuse to cry “foul” in the arena of political correctness. The problem here is that too often these folks are the ones who set the parameters, make the rules and expect everyone else to follow them; the game is theirs and so are the rules.

Of the countless school assemblies I attended in thirty-one years of teaching, the one that most remains in memory was one before school dismissed for Christmas break ( no, I meant Christmas…I didn’t misspeak; that was not a typo) was one in which a colleague of mine talked to the Junior High student body about the word “Christmas”and what the word symbolized. His point? “Don’t deconstruct the word. It is as it is; it is what it is; it says what it means to say: ‘Christ’s Mass,’a religious ritual. You can’t, nor should you “X” out the most important part of the word’s meaning just because it has religious significance.”My friend Richard Hetland  gave that little speech back in the 1980s. He could not deliver such a speech in front of today’s New Millennium student body; it would be considered inappropriate, insensitive, disrespectful. And I think that’s a shame.

The two monolithic watchdogs of political correctness are government and the Public School System. When I was in school, we looked forward to Christmas vacation (not “winter break”); my classmates and I participated in the Christmas program, sang Christmas carols; each classroom had its own Christmas tree and in its presence we had a pre-dismissal Christmas vacation Christmas party. We even exchanged Christmas presents. I distinctly remember one Christmas party in particular because Mrs. Greaves, our charismatic eighth grade teacher, knowing full well her students would be far too excited to concentrate on sentence diagrams, had us see how many words we could make from the letters in Christmas. (It’s my guess there aren’t nearly as many word combinations possible in “winter.”)

I don’t consider myself much of a religious person (I believe the last time I visited a church was for a relative’s funeral), but religion, at least for me, is not the issue here. It’s having others’ sensitivities forced upon the rest of us.This time of year the Christmas police mount up, arm themselves with their “X’s, Season’s Greetings, Winter festivals and programs, and Happy Holidays (‘Holy Days? Now there’s a secular word for you…) and do battle with all things Christmas.

The years I taught, I tried to impart to my students that words, even though they are merely symbols for conveying meaning, have power; the baggage they carry can either be positive, negative or neutral. Sure, there are words we know not to use because of their hurtful—in some cases—vicious meanings. Christmas, though, hardly seems one of these, nor does it seem a candidate for euphemisms such as “winter” or “holiday.” I say it is time the “Occupy Christmas” movement decamp and move to some other cause, find another issue that pricks their thin skins.

As for me, I have no more time to devote to this post. The seasonal clock is ticking away and I must attend to that stack of cards, take the time to write a personal note in each, address and send them off. I’ll conclude my note by wishing each recipient a “Merry Christmas”; after all, they are Christmas cards, aren’t they? Yes, Christmas cards. There, I said it again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A “Lucky” Visit in the Valley…

Decking the gateWhen I prepare for a walk in the Valley these cold December days of fog and darkness, it’s almost like I’m dressing for an assault on the North Pole. The other day I was layered up, capped and mittened, lumbering my way down the Valley, when I saw a large, gray Dodge Ram pickup idling at the end of the driveway of the old MaGee residence and thought to myself, “Ah, the OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY!”

Back in September The Ripple did an exclusive report on some intimidating signage posted either side of the chain link fence at that property (“Not a Good Sign,” 9/14). A few days later the sign’s message was validated when two large Great Dane-like hounds bounded to a stop next to the four foot fence and voiced their disapproval of the pedestrian strolling by. Since that day whenever I approach the corner afoot, I steel my ears against a sudden, thunderous barking, my pulse rate ramps up, and my hand readies near the pocket that carries a canister of pepper spray (vestige of the “dog days” of Johnny Deck).

As days passed, I noticed other subtle changes signifying a new occupancy. A metal gate now barred the driveway. Two new signs picturing large dogs were wired to that gate. A few days later, an American flag waved from a newly installed flagpole. Beneath it rippled a faded red flag bearing the emblem of the U. S. Marine Corps.

If anything, The Ripple is fair; just as there are two sides to a fence, there are two sides to a story. September 14th The Ripple only reported one side—the street story--and behind the wheel of the big pickup was the other story, the house side of the fence. Gladys and I wheeled up to driver’s side for the full disclosure, balance the bias, so to speak.

When he sees the old codger on a girl’s bike parked beside his truck, the driver gives me a quizzical look and powers down the window. “Just wanted to welcome the new neighbors to the Valley,” I say, introduce myself, and extend my hand. A large, meaty palm swallows mine. I see I’m welcoming a big man, a fellow built for that big truck. “Lucky Garcia,” he replies. “Ah, an Irishman,” I joke. Lucky smiles an easy, comfortable smile, the type of smile that is unsure of itself at first, but when it makes up its mind, quickly consumes the face with enough force to lift a chin. And Lucky smiles often…a good “sign,” I think, my mind on those other signs.

I ease into the conversation by sharing some of the history of the house on the corner…our old friends, the MaGees…that Garth and I were both teachers…how their house was flooded in 1990 and raised three feet the following year…the boulders Garth set at the corner to protect his new chain link fence from the aggressive drivers who failed to negotiate the turn….the oyster bakes we used to have on their outdoor barbeque. Lucky has done some research himself; much of what I tell him, excepting the oyster feeds, of course, is not new information.

And the “Semper Fi” flag? The Valley has a Gulf War  veteran (the “First” Gulf War, Lucky informs me), living among us now. Apparently service to one’s country runs in Lucky’s family: his son (one of five children) has just finished his second deployment in Afghanistan. (Dad and son both hold the same rank; a belated thanks to them for their service.)

During this idle banter, I’m withholding the question I’ve wanted to ask all along, the real reason I rolled up in the welcome wagon: those big dogs with the pointy ears. I motion toward the signs: “So tell me about your dogs.” I was right about the breed: “Yeah, they’re Great Danes, Lucky says. What I didn’t know is the Garcias have four. Lucky must have only sent out his first string to greet me that day. I gaze down the long side of that big crew cab Dodge Ram…four Great Danes…must have to haul dog food by the ton. Lucky reassures me his dogs are no threat (just as all guns are not loaded, I think). But yet there are those signs again…and sixteen long legs…and that short fence…. When I learn one of the four has had special training to guard and protect, I make a mental note to keep my wits about me and my pocket armed when I’m afoot near that corner.

By this time we are on familiar enough terms for me to share my first impressions with the new neighbor: the “Beware of Dog” signs, the gated driveway, flagpole flying the American flag and the “Semper Fi” insignia beneath, all the markings of an armed camp. “Are you afraid to live here in the Valley?” I ask. “No,” Lucky replies as that smile eases into his face, tilts his chin: “We moved here from San Diego.”

Oh.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dahlia Delighted…

Bucket of beautiesHoliday lights are up in the Valley. Folks have fir trees on their mind these days, not dahlias…such a strange time of the year to be talking about dahlias. Perhaps this post will remind me to cut my dahlia stalks and cover the hills with the leaves piled between the rows before a sudden cold wave seizes the garden in permafrost.

In my opinion if dahlias had fragrance, they would be the perfect flower. Dahlia blossoms provide a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors. Just one tuber yields a prodigious amount of flowers, blossoms that just keep coming until the first frost. Plant one solitary bulb and at season’s end you have enough for an entire row. In years past we have had dahlia bouquets on the table among the platters of Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes.

My dalliance with dahlias began several years ago. In town on Kelsey Street--and neighbor to my old beekeeping friend Lester Broughton--resided a serious dahlia fancier. I can’t remember the old gentleman’s name…just knew him as “Stub,” a nickname he appropriated, I’m certain, because of his height. In short (as was he), he lived up to his name. Up to it only—no taller. Stub had a passion for dahlias. His backyard was a dahlia delight. Stub knew his dahlias, too, and when you walked with him among his flower beds, you could feel his passion, his love for each variety. He would gently catch a stem between his stubby fingers, tilt the flower for display, and relate the dahlia’s entire story, a floral biography with Stub its biographer.

That was a good many years ago; memories grow fuzzy, but I believe Stub cultivated seven separate patches of dahlias: one for common, medium-sized dahlias in a variety of colors; another plot of what he called “water lily” dahlias, broad petaled blooms that could float in any Valley flood; there were the “poms,” with their ball-shaped, compact blossoms; spider varieties with their long, slender petals; the “dinner plate dahlias,” blooms huge enough for a child to hide his head behind; the miniatures, almost clover-sized poms that bloomed like perky buttons; and the “experimental” plot, dahlias Stub grew from seed or grafted stock. Because of his keen eye for dahlia perfection, Stub was an official judge at dahlia shows. He would point out a certain delightful dahlia and say, “You need to plant at least three hills of that one to make a prizewinning display at a show.”

While the date of my wedding anniversary—or even my own birthday—fades in and out of memory, for some reason I always remember October 3; that was the day Stub began digging his dahlia tubers each fall. Three days it took him, he told me, to dig the tubers from all the plots. Stub would separate the clusters, choose the best bulbs of the clump, select the ones with the most promising eyes and carefully seal each tuber in a zip-loc bag with name and variety neatly printed on the label. Then each bulb was sandwiched with the others in a cardboard box and stored until spring in a shed in which Stub placed a milk house heater to keep his treasures from freezing. Infectious his passion was; any gardener couldn’t help but be enthused.

Thanks to Stub I’m always looking to brighten up my own dahlia patch. Back in August I posted about a dahlia I admired among the dahlia rows in the Cambodians’ flower fields (“Lusting in the Valley: Thou Shalt not Covet Anything Belonging to Another Man…,” 8/24).Coveted color For some strange reason my dahlia plot has evolved into cool colors: whites (far too many), lavenders and purples, pinks, a few pale yellows…but nothing “hot” red or orange to dazzle the eye; nothing to cry out for notice (should, by chance, an impressionist painter happen by). Now if I could just mix two or three tubers of that fiery little number in among the anemic blooms and pump up the patch a bit, the backyard would be a richer color for it. If you read The Ripple’s August post, you know I tried to exchange colors with the Cambodian flower farmer, but he seemed not the least interested in a dahlia trade. He did leave me room for hope, however: “You come by sometime when we dig. I give you two, maybe three.”

It is later. And I am pedaling by. Gladys, scofflaw that she is, ran the stop sign as usual, and we swung onto the upper Loop Road where I noticed a white box truck parked on the shoulder. The rear door was open, revealing a compartment piled to the roof with plastic buckets. On the bed by the tailgate several buckets bulged with tubers as if they were dahlia yams. There was a flurry of activity in the dahlia fields: the fall tuber harvest was in full swing. Two Cambodian women were at work in the rows. One seemed to be an onlooker, there caring for a young child—or babysitting for the other while her mother labored down the rows.Peek a Boo

I called out to the young woman at work digging up the clusters, harvesting them into the buckets. She smiled and waved. I wondered if she was one of the two women whose van I rescued from the Valley mud a year ago. I wasn’t sure…there’s a striking resemblance among young Asian women: they all pretty much look alike to me. She was very friendly, her English fairly good. “Could I have a few bulbs?” I asked her. She ceased work, immediately marched toward me, and asked which variety I wanted.

Now when the dahlias were in bloom, I had counted and recounted the rows, so I knew exactly where the object of my desire grew. I directed her to that row. Machete and potato fork in hand, she trotted to row six and laid into those canes like she was chopping stir fry. (And the entire time she did it with a cellphone clamped between her ear and shoulder!) I got the feeling she would have dug up the entire field and shared it with me. The machete and potato fork made quick work of each hill, and in no time she had unearthed three large clumps and began separating the tubers, inspecting each for promising bud nodes. Dahlia delighted

What better opportunity than now, I thought, to ask someone who tends acres of dahlias how they overwinter theirs. I had tried Stub’s method and failed; in the spring the zip-loc bags were either filled with mush and mold or contained some shriveled looking, twisty thing. I’ve stashed them in the crawlspace under the house. By spring the clusters were heaps of mold. In the shed, same results. Now I just leave them in the ground, heavily mulched, until spring. “You keep in garage; they just fine,” I’m told. The garage??? Who would have thought….

I watched her break into each hill with that potato fork. The clumps surfaced quickly, each intact, no tubers sliced in half as always happens with me and my shovel technique. A potato fork??? Who would have thought….

Now my dahlia quest is complete; I have my fire dahlias, a full baker’s dozen, slumbering in a bucket safely in the garage, and like the phoenix poised to rise from its ashes, each awaits spring. (As a bulb exchange appeared out of the question, I returned with a pound jar of Tualco Valley knotweed honey to show my thanks.) Dahlia Miss

After all, this is the season of gifts and giving, isn’t it? Last year I gifted my wife with a refurbished heirloom garden hoe. A potato fork? Hmmmmm… now it certainly would be nice to have one of those.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stepping Up in the Valley…

Strange lights in the ValleyIt’s five o’clock and already dark outside. But what would you’d expect for the first of day of December? Just a minute now…out to the west I see strange lights…. Too low to be aircraft. Too colorful to be a UFO.What can they be?

Christmas in the Valley already…? And it’s only December first! I have to say as far as getting a jump on the season, it’s Santa’s red hat off to the Broers this year. Last year they were nearly pushing Christmas Eve before any outdoor illumination appeared. I was beginning to feel sorry for those eight reindeer having to land with only Rudolph’s nose for landing lights.

In last year’s post about Valley illumination (“Getting Lit in the Valley,” 12/19) I admit to a gentle chiding of the mid-December darkness at Broers’ Farms. It seemed to me the quaint little farmhouse and impressive barn cried out for decoration, for the Christmas spirit illuminated. Just in the knick of time Ed and Ginnifer saved Christmas. The lights came on and the western horizon glowed holiday festive.

This year Broers’ Farms have welcomed Christmas to the Valley before any of the neighbors…and I thought the Christmas spirit moved me to hang our outdoor lights the last day of November, the earliest ever. (A new illumination theme this season: blue and white. Why? I’m still not sure….) The truth of it is, our family Christmas gala is here in the Valley this year, so what has to be done, best be done to make way for all else that needs to be done for the occasion; in short, once again I’m being strong-armed by December 25. Surprising that Ed and Ginnifer have stepped up the holiday pace. This year the pressure’s on those Beebes.

So it’s kudos to the Broers family. Even Tony and Sadie’s lights festoon the eves. (But is it my imagination, or are those dead bulbs left from last year?) Another Christmas season is upon us, and the Broers have not only validated it but have succeeded in “one upping” their neighbors.

As far as awards or trophies, though, here’s a tip guaranteed to bring home the gold for Ed: install a big blow-up Santa or a hot air Frosty on the ridge peak of that stately barn and and first place is yours hands down.

This year I’ll bet with a bit of encouragement Brett and Megan de Vries might even string some outdoor lights on the old Streutker homestead. That corner could use a little Christmas.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Shameful Plug from The Ripple…

Soaring swansReaders of The Ripple know its mission is to report the news, pure and simple. If there is news out in the Valley, The Ripple is sure to ferret it out; The Ripple will make a point to hunt the news down and report it. If a story breaks in The Ripple, it is the same as reading an article in The New York Sun: you know has to be true (“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”). Because The Ripple has set such high journalistic standards where the news is concerned, it has scoffed at other print media that resort to “The Classified Ads,”an obvious attempt to add revenue to keep its editorial pages alive. Until this post, that is.

In various posts I have alluded to my history growing up on an apple ranch along the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. In 1967 my riverbank was flooded by the Well’s Dam Hydroelectric Project and my boyhood playground turned lake under forty feet of water. When I retired from thirty-one years of teaching in 2000, a top priority of mine was to record the history of my years on the riverbank for my daughter and share with her my childhood experiences in a place now submerged beneath the waters of a lake, a place she would never know. I guess you could say I started the “research” for my writing project in 1953, when our family moved to the riverbank, and in 2003, fifty years later, my ten years spent there became 208 pages of narrative between the covers of a book.

For three months I worked with the Snohomish Publishing Company preparing the manuscript for publication. One day in late November Jeff Wise of Snohomish Publishing called to say the printing plates were made and if I wanted to come to the print shop, I could watch the presses roll and print my book. Very exciting it was to watch the words and sentences recounting ten years of my childhood roll through the machinery and emerge as pages of a book. A few days later I picked up seven boxes of books, 260 in that printing, and for Christmas 2003, each member of the family received a personalized copy of my riverbank memoir.

Last May only ten copies of the book remained, and I considered not only doing a second printing, but a revised edition to add a bit more artwork, narrative, and address a few minor editing issues whose presence in the first edition were bothersome to me. When I considered returning to the traditional publishing method, my son-in-law Avi suggested I explore the alternative print on demand service, have my second edition published as an e-book. A more cost-efficient way of publishing, print on demand books are just that: books printed and distributed according to demand. Thus the author doesn’t have the expense of having large lots of books printed at once. The cost for each book is commission-based; the publisher takes a certain percentage of each unit to cover his expenses and turn a slight profit. After much nervous deliberation (the process required computer skills I wasn’t sure I possessed), I decided I’d venture into cyberspace and see what happened.

There are several publish on demand internet businesses. I chose Amazon.com’s service because it offered the greatest potential for exposure and distribution; your book would be included in Amazon’s vast inventory of books, sitting there on the world wide shelf of books, so to speak, for the whole world to see.

I nearly aborted the new venture at the outset; for some odd reason I was reluctant to relinquish control of my manuscript to a company I had no experience with, send it off to people I had never met and most likely never would. (Their publishing center is in South Carolina). I reasoned, though, that I owned the copyright to my book regardless of wherever it wandered, wherever it roamed, so in late May I set up an online account with the company, and after some preliminary assistance from Avi, sent my manuscript off into the void.

Thus began my book’s second edition odyssey, an adventure that concluded at last (whew!) this past week. What began as a fascinating experience grew tedious during the final days of the process. And at the expense of being tedious myself—and for any who might want to take the journey themselves one day—I’ll give you a brief, guided tour of my experience.

Let me preface the following by stating that my having a book to begin with, or so I thought, should expedite publishing a second edition. I first sent two “physical copies” of my book so the front and back cover images could be formatted. The book has artwork and the graphics had to be sent as a separate file. Then the placement of the graphics had to be synchronized with chapter and section headings. At each step I was emailed an “interior proof”to either approve or request changes. To accept the proof, of course, meant I had to reread the entire manuscript each time a revised version was sent me. (Being the sole editor of one’s work reminds one of the saying: “He who chooses to defend himself in a court of law has a fool for an attorney.” The author is too close to his own words to see typos and grammatical errors.)

My initial goal in the editing process was to free the original manuscript from its previous little imperfections. This I did with ease. I added more text but mistakenly used the word “considerately” for “considerably” (too close to your word tree to see the sentence forest???) This I corrected and a new interior proof was sent for my approval. Strangely enough—and frustrating to no end—finally only spacing issues remained. Editors need to “justify” (set flush) left and right hand margins. In the process, greater space between words is necessary to justify a line and the line has to be adjusted manually to accomplish this and keep the spacing consistent. At this point I had two spacing issues I needed to address: consistency in spacing between words in justified lines; and dash lengths (hyphens, dashes, en dashes and em dashes are each a different length). I know all this fine tuning seems incredibly picayune, but, hey, it’s a part of your life, your work, your words,  isn’t it? “If it’s not right, what’s the point?” “Dash it all,” I told my project team. Changes were made and finally I was no longer “spaced out.”

It is a most satisfying moment when the “physical proof” arrives on your doorstep for your approval; you hold YOUR book in your hand, thumb through its pages: graphics look fine, are placed correctly; section headings match the narrative; the font is pleasing to the eye. But wait! What’s this! On pages 78 and 166 a single line per page has a spacing issue (three spaces instead of two between two words each). Do I approve this liberal spacing in two lines of a 202 page book? Would the editor of The Ripple concede to “close is good enough?” I clicked the “request changes” button, and yet another “physical proof” was headed my way for approval--accompanied by an email informing me any additional changes would cost fifty dollars. (Picayune doesn’t come cheap.)

After twenty-one emails, many phone conversations with “member support” and my “project team,” eight “interior proof”changes and two “physical proof”revisions, my e-publishing experience concluded last week when the two revised proofs arrived via UPS. Pages 78 and 166 were no longer spacey. I immediately went to the computer and clicked the “approve proof” button. Mission Accomplished!

Black Friday is behind us. Tomorrow is cyber-Monday, and I’m ashamed to say The Ripple, too, has succumbed to the flurry of crass commercialism. Readers who have found The Ripple entertaining  might find equally  engaging the story of young boy and his adventures growing up on an apple orchard along the banks of the Columbia River in the 1950’s. And so for this post The Ripple has added a “classified section” with only one listing: www.createspace/3614533. There will be no further classified pages in any subsequent posts of The Ripple. That’s a promise. You read it here. And if you read it in The Ripple, you know it’s true.

(Note: special thanks to Avi for his encouragement and assistance in helping me navigate the perilous shoals and reefs of cyber-publishing.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Valley Walk Leads to…Well, Embarrassment…

Just a memoryThe Valley skies took a momentary breather this morning, withheld their latest deluge long enough for me to take a walk unscathed by rain. It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Valley. One thing or another, you know; we all have our “one thing or anothers” that keep us from doing what’s best for us, which in my case is to get out of the house, move around a bit, get some exercise.

It was good to get out in the rain-washed air. The Valley has settled into winter dormancy; not much going on out there these days unless you’re a commuting trumpeter swan gliding from one barren cornfield to the next. My return trip takes me by Jerald and Tina Streutkers’ old house on the corner. I stop and pick an apple off the golden delicious apple tree I’ve pruned a time or two for Jerald. I take a bite. The apple is sweet and juicy—golden deliciousy, and that sets me to thinking about Jerald, about Tina, about the days I used to walk by and see them both working in their yard and garden… about how I miss seeing them there these days. I marveled then and continue to marvel at how they used to keep that one little acre so neat and trim, always a Valley showplace, a pleasure to walk or ride past.

And it’s those thoughts that bring me to the Hallmark Store in town. I’m looking for a card to send to Jerald and Tina c/o Merrill Gardens in town, a card wishing them both a Happy Thanksgiving, let them know I’m thinking about our former neighbors. As soon as I swing open the door, I’m assaulted by Christmas. Snow globes, pricey ornaments, Christmas carol white noise, flash and glitter everywhere…Christmas cards for her, Christmas cards for him, for son, daughter, third cousin removed on your mother’s side of the family. Are dogs and cats sending Christmas cards these days? Hey, here’s a Christmas card for my dentist. Yeah, like I’m going to spend one more dollar on that fellow… Really! Pushing the envelope of holiday spirit a bit too far, a bit too soon….

But I’m here for a Thanksgiving card. “There are more Christmas cards on the other side,” a cheerful help-the consumer-spend-his money voice informs me. She’s right. Another twenty foot section of Merry Christmas greetings confronts me. Across the aisle yet more Christmas cards, boxes and boxes of them, and there on the far end of that row of shelves, scarcely an arm’s length from the sympathy cards, were the Thanksgiving cards, a generous four foot (if that) display. I know--it’s the last minute; Thanksgiving is only two days away, but still…only four feet…? (Apparently dogs and cats don’t acknowledge Thanksgiving.) A lady, one holiday ahead of me, is having problems of her own among the boxes of Christmas cards. “Looks like Thanksgiving has been given short shrift,” I complain. “Yes, they kind of kick Thanksgiving to the curb, don’t they,” she laughs. I find at the most three suitable cards, and while they’re not exactly what I’m looking for, each might do. Decisions, decisions….

I select a card whose sentiment arrives in the general vicinity of what I wish to express. I’ll only have to cross out one word and add two more. Then it’ll be just about right. I proceed to the cash register; I need to post the card today lest it be belated and encroach on the legitimate Christmas season. “Did you find what you needed?” the cheery voice asks. At this juncture I decide to stand up for Thanksgiving, be an advocate for this traditional holiday for giving thanks. Just four feet? Where’s the holiday justice here? “You certainly don’t have much of a selection in the way of Thanksgiving cards,” I reply in a tone just shy of huffiness. (Well…maybe I was a bit huffy.) Pause. Now we’re in a tone contest: hers is no longer cheerful, a bit brusque, I would say. (Yes, brusque…definitely brusque.) She looks me straight in the eye and proceeds to justify the paucity of cards in the Thanksgiving section:

“We have a customer,” she explains, “who comes in  before Thanksgiving each year and buys five hundred Thanksgiving cards for our service men and women serving overseas. This is what she chooses to do with her extra money: buy greeting cards. She doesn’t buy for herself, her relatives or friends. She buys the cards, addresses the envelopes, sees to the postage and sends them off.”

“So how big a section did you set aside for Thanksgiving, then?” I’m more tentative now. You might even say a bit subdued. “Twelve feet,”is the answer.

We’ve all had situations where we wish we’d just kept our mouths shut. I’ve just shared one of mine with you. Happy Thanksgiving from The Ripple!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From Our Valley to Theirs…

Sky Valley FBAnother fall pancake breakfast under my belt. As I’m about to exit the Grange, I notice a large cardboard box perched on a table just inside the door. In honesty I have to admit it’s the word “Free” that catches my eye. That and the fact the “free” stuff is a box of quince. Now I’m perhaps the Valley’s biggest (and only) grower and advocate of quince. On the back of the property I planted a quince tree of my own four years ago, and it has exceeded all my quince expectations. The particulars of my quince experience I posted last fall:( “A Breath of Fresh Air in the Valley…,” 10/30/2010.)

Mrs. Butch Olsen brought the quince to the Grange in hopes some of the breakfasters might find a use for the fruit in their fall cooking. (I’ve supplemented quince with apples in my mincemeat recipe.) This crop looked to me like windfalls, just a bit beyond their window of usefulness. Mrs. Butch remarked if no one seemed interested in the “free” produce, she might take the box to the Sky Valley Food Bank. “I heard the Hispanics use the fruit in some way,”she said. The big box of quince, plus Mrs. Olsen’s intent to share it with the food bank, got me to thinking about my own plentiful crop of quince and other excess produce in the backyard garden. Quince, anyone

A few days later I roll to a stop in the delivery lot of the downtown Sky Valley Food Bank and unload a large box of peppers (caliente!), a half bucket of tomatillos, a large bag of dried walnuts—and a milk crate brimming with freshly picked quince. The produce weighs in at 78 pounds, bringing my season’s contribution over the summer to nearly 150 pounds. I take aside Ruth, one of the volunteers, (Ruth happens to be the mother of Coach Marilyn, my daughter’s softball coach a couple decades back) and we discuss the produce I’ve brought in this morning. As we talk, the other volunteers are already bagging the quince. None among them have heard of the fruit, know anything about it. I tell them quince is used in fruit preserves, jelly in particular…that it’s a fruit prized by the English and it also makes a great air freshener for your house or car. Next into bags are the peppers. The volunteers seem to know to separate the “hot” from the “cool.” The Food Bank is very appreciative of anything you bring in: even zucchini, regardless if it’s the size of watermelons. (“Oh, we get them bigger than that,” a volunteer said when I dropped off several hefty green cylinders a few weeks back.)

You have only to wander through the produce section of a grocery store to understand why those who struggle to put healthy food on the table shake their heads at the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, pass them by and head for the inexpensive, less nutritious foodstuffs. Apples over two dollars a pound; winter squash seventy-nine cents a pound; leaf lettuce nearly two dollars a bundle; even zucchini out of season is over a dollar a pound. And the “organic” (just what does “organic” mean, anyway?) produce section seems to require a second mortgage on the house. 

So I started thinking about our own small garden plot, all the food it provides us and the excess it yields (you’d expect a little surplus from fifty-six pepper plants, I guess). We have, perhaps, a garden about one-sixth of an acre in size, and our pantry shelves are brimming with home canned produce from that small plot. Why didn’t I take more to the food bank before the frosts ruined much of the excess?

I think, too, about all the produce our Valley yields, how much of it must certainly go to waste.Pumpkin wasteland Case in point: the pumpkin and squash field south of the Lower Loop bridge. The pumpkins don’t even appear to have been harvested. And beyond their rows I see butternut squash hunkered down there waiting to find their way to someone’s dinner table.Squash at loose ends In years past I have seen fields of produce lying unused, wasting away, a scant mile away from a distribution center that could disseminate Valley nutrition to those who need and could use the surplus. Willie Green's Green Grocery

This season the tomato greenhouses at Willie Green’s Organic farms hung heavy with beautiful, blight-free tomatoes. Were all those marketed? I wonder. Not meant to be critical, but all those rows of sweet corn in the Frohnings’ family garden? Can one family eat that much corn? Just a thought. I’ve seen bean rows at Broers’ Farms laden with beans right up until the field is cleared. Did more than necessary end up as compost? (Although I did take two five gallon buckets of my own beans to Sky Valley FB, I admit I should have taken more; I see beans going to waste in my own bean row, now dangling there limp, moldy and black.)

A little more Food Bank food for thought: Thanksgiving is next week. The city’s service groups will be camped out at the entrances of local grocery stores taking donations for the less fortunate, counting on the spirit of the season to prod the charitable natures of those who have excess to give. During the holiday season this display of community  service is always somewhat unsettling to me…almost as if these well-meaning groups are taking advantage of the festive season to leverage their cause. What about the other ten months of the year? Isn’t mealtime a daily event and putting food on the dinner table an important part of the day’s routine? Each national holiday I notice flags lining the streets, testimony to the patriotism of the community, but doesn’t the need for food and sustenance remain the same regardless of the day of the month? Perhaps these civic-minded groups should man their stations at least once a month to remind the public that food is a daily need; biannual feasts will hardly sustain a family the other 363 days of the year.

If we tend to be selfish about anything, we’re most selfish with our time; it seems there is never quite enough to go around, to accomplish all we need to do—or set out to do—during our busy days. (Even fewer minutes now that it’s Standard Time--unless one works well in the dark.) Granted, it takes time to harvest the surplus produce; granted, too, a trip to the Food Bank steals more time yet. But I look at it this way: if I spend the time to plant and grow the crop, I owe it to myself to see the food is used prudently—and with the least amount of wastage possible.

I recall there used to be a charity organization, that if notified, would send volunteers to gardens and farms to harvest the excess and transport it to food distribution centers. Most organizations like Northwest Harvest rely on cash donations; as far as I know, NWH has no procedure in place to send volunteers out to the countryside, harvest excess produce, and see that it makes its way to local food banks. Such an effort, I would think, could harvest the excess from our Valley and see that it was put to good use.

Now is the time to lay out next year’s garden. I suggest you consider our local food banks and plant extra crops: one more row of corn, an additional pole or hill of beans, a few more hills of potatoes, add a half dozen feet to that row of beets. As far as zucchini? Plant a couple extra seeds: even if the fruit grows to watermelon size, the Sky Valley Food Bank will take it and put those  excess squash logs to good use.

Note: the Sky Valley Food bank accepts donation drop offs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. For additional information, give them a call: (360)-794-7959.SVFB food wagon

And a post script: The Ripple has heard a rumor that the Jim Werkhovens plant a communal cornfield adjacent to their home and Sargent Road. This year the field lies fallow. Just wondering why….

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seeking the High Ground in the Valley…

Swan Valley

The summer’s swaying corn is just a memory now; only stubble stipples the barren fields. Perhaps that’s why at the distant reaches of a field a flash of white catches my eye. I turn and am suddenly a witness to mortal combat, a struggle for life and death in the Valley. A hawk has singled out a pigeon, separated it from its flock. The hawk has the advantage of altitude, the high ground, swoops down on its prey. The pigeon slips sideways, escapes the first attack. The hawk’s momentum sweeps it aloft again. A second assault. A second time the pigeon dodges death. Meanwhile, the flock  has frantically circled higher, spiraling upwards, gaining height, seeking safety in altitude. Now aloft high over the scene, the pigeons watch as their comrade escapes the hawk’s final assault and darts into the safety of some cottonwoods. Birds know to seek the high ground when a hawk is prowling around the neighborhood.

On a walk out in the Valley a couple years ago I saw a bald eagle badgering a seagull in the same field. Neither had the high ground and the eagle was more an aggravation than a threat. In mortal warfare the army that holds the high ground always has the advantage. Had the English not been lured from the ridge of Senlac Hill during the Battle of Hastings we wouldn’t have the extra baggage of some nine hundred French words that bullied their way into English (consult the etymologies of “quilt, veal, surgeon, chess,” oh, and  check “baggage,” too, while you’re at it). 

Yes, altitude is all important: take the altimeter, for instance, that invaluable instrument that warns the aircraft pilot how far away he is from making a very hard landing. Perhaps that’s why the World War I flying ace Snoopy time after time has his Sopwith Camel blasted out of the sky by the Baron’s Fokker D-7: the Baron always has the advantage of altitude. Little surprise then (aside from the fact Snoopy’s doghouse has no engine or wings) that the bold little beagle is bested in every “dog”fight; even in cartoon land you can’t teach an old dog new tricks .

You know, I can’t help thinking the life and death conflict I witnessed between the pigeon and hawk might well serve as a kind of metaphor for life in general. As we go about our routines, don’t we try to maintain  the “upper hand” over our daily problems, take the “higher road,” not the lower? Every day we struggle for a few extra wing beats to keep ourselves upright and perpendicular.

Here it is November already, historically the time of the year the Valley experiences its worst floods, and I’m thinking the next few weeks we Valley folks could use all the altitude we can get.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Decision not Made Lightly…

blushing Grange

“Regular or cinnamon?”There at my left elbow is Applesauce Betty smiling down at me.  It’s hardly nine a.m. Saturday morning. The weekend. My coffee hasn’t had a chance to work its magic yet. Already I’m being pressured to make a decision.

Earlier I paid my five dollars for the Tualco Valley Grange pancake breakfast, applesauce edition. I complained as always about the cost, asked if I qualified for a Senior discount, and Allen Barr reminded me that what I’m about to be served is indeed a bargain. But complaining doesn’t cost me anything, so I decide to get my money’s worth. Allan is disappointed there’s only one of me. Usually that’s one too many for most folks, but money’s at issue here, I guess. When I see the only discount I’m getting is Allen’s stubborn smile, I look around for a breakfast spot.

I decide to give Rich and Judy Cabe the pleasure of my company. “Is this seat taken?” I ask. “It is now,”Rich replies. Hardly had I scooted in my chair and removed my hat than I heard the cheerful voice of the applesauce lady. “Regular or cinnamon?” But this is where you came in, right? Now I’m a traditionalist in every sense; and its only grudgingly I order an Americano when all I want is a good cup of coffee, coffee just like you’d get at a truck stop cafĂ©. Now I have to decide if I want additives in my breakfast appetizer. “Why, cinnamon, of course,” I request, and Betty selects of dish of dusky colored sauce from her tray and places it before me.

Rich and Judy have already finished their breakfast, and I gather the only reason Rick lingers is because he’s putting off the home front chores as long as possible. (After all, it’s the weekend.) I plan to follow his example. Betty brings my breakfast and as she places it before me, I ask her about the spring pancake breakfast.“Did you have the strawberry edition this year?” Betty hesitates, shakes her head, expressing her disappointment. “No, we didn’t. The strawberries were just too expensive!” What a shame, I think…a Valley full of berries and the Grange can’t serve up a single one. “Rhubarb,” I say. “Maybe you should serve rhubarb sauce instead. There’s plenty of rhubarb, you know.” Betty turns up her nose: “Rhubarb? No. I don’t like rhubarb for breakfast.” “It’s pretty tasty if you sprinkle a little cinnamon on it,” I inform her. She shakes her head and hurries back to the kitchen.

I look down at my breakfast and it is a carbon copy of all the breakfasts I’ve ever been served at the grange. It’s as if the cooks employ templates for each portion served: same small heap of scrambled eggs; thin slice of ham I can see through (the plate is spic and span, very hygienic looking); and Wally apparently has a governor on that batter machine of his. If I hadn’t ordered the cinnamon applesauce, I would have broken even on the portions. Rich passes me the syrup, and I squeeze out a more than liberal amount on my two saucer-sized pancakes.

Between bites I chat with Rich but can’t uncover much news. I look around for familiar faces, notice Matt Beebe and daughter examining one of the old photographs on the wall. Matt directs a finger toward a few faces, using the photograph as a lesson in Valley history is my guess. Tim and Sandy Frohning have answered the call to breakfast and make their way to the end of my table. Tim and I exchange our customary verbal parries and then he thanks The Ripple for its post about son Matt ( “A Man Outstanding in his Field,” 10/23) and congratulates the press for its accurate and insightful reporting of the afternoon spent with the young man chopping corn. But I’m not the least surprised: if nothing else, The Ripple is spot-on accurate. Over 160 posts published without a single correction or retraction.

Butch Olsen strolls over to our table, interrupts our conversation, and asks if I’m the guy who writes about the Valley, the guy who has the bees? “Yes and yes,” I confess. It seems everybody has a personal bee story to share. “They hate me,”Butch complains. “Every time I go out in the woods I get bee bit! Why do you suppose that is?” “Maybe you need to change your aftershave?” I offer. Butch puzzles over this a moment, gives me a look, shakes his head and returns to kitchen duty. Rich and Judy stand to leave…those chores, I guess. I drain my third cup of coffee, say my good-byes, and head out the door toward my own chores. After all, I need to work off that heavy breakfast.

A day or two later I meet Betty and her sister uptown. “How’d the breakfast go?” I ask. “Better than I expected,” Sister replied, “we served 54.” “You would have had better attendance had you whetted their appetites with strawberries last spring,” I tell her. When I suggest the rhubarb alternative, Sis wrinkles her nose. “I don’t like rhubarb for breakfast,” she says.

That cinnamon applesauce was quite tasty, I must admit. A very good decision, it turned out. By the way, tomorrow is election day. I just dropped off my ballot at the library this afternoon (and saved forty-four cents I can set aside for next year’s pancake breakfast). “Regular or cinnamon?” I wish all decisions were that easy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Study in Valley Economics…

Rolling stock

Please bear with this post as The Ripple strays briefly beyond the Valley into the realm of personal finances. I trust it will wander back before too long, but I’m afraid I can’t make any promises.

Far be it from me to spearhead an Occupy the Valley protest, but I’m ever vigilant these days about what I call “fee creep,” the “incoming” fee surge targeting us consumers. The most flagrant of this creepiness of late is the bold announcement by Bank of America that starting January 1, Big City Bank of America will charge its clients a five dollar a month fee for using their debit cards to pay charges and bills with their own money. I’m not running for public office, so I’m not required to disclose my personal finances but I don’t mind sharing the fact that just the other day I learned I now have to pay my bank to keep my money there.

Long gone are the days when the public schoolroom taught schoolchildren the importance of saving and the role The Bank plays in fostering this good habit. The Bank, we learned, kept our money safe—and paid us to do so: “interest,” it was called because The Bank rewarded us for our “interest” in Them as a place to keep our money safe. Once a week was bank day (Fridays, maybe?). I would slip a dime or a dime and a nickel in my pocket and head for the bus stop. At some designated time our teacher would distribute the little banking envelopes with the two plastic discs around which we wrapped a waxed piece of string figure eight fashion to secure our weekly deposit for safe transit to The Bank. Filling out the deposit slip and checking the subsequent balance weekly involved us in what today’s modern classroom would term “consumer math.”And we could see, young as we were, our savings grow weekly, monthly, and at school year’s end, what we had saved—plus the interest.

Yes, now I have to pay to keep my money safe. Our last month’s checkings statement showed a two dollar service charge, The Bank’s gentle exhortation for us to “go green,” forego paper statements and bank online (where we’ll really be at their mercy). Jokingly I used to ask the bank tellers if they’d please give me a call when The Bank began charging me to keep my money there. Last month my little nest egg at The Bank yielded seventy-nine cents interest. Hmmmm… they pay me $.79…I pay them two dollars. No joke there, yet I’m not about to gather up my camping gear, head for The Bank’s parking lot and pitch a tent.

I don’t know if there’s a more potent concoction than a brew made of government and Wall Street. The government suddenly limits the amount of money banks can charge retailers to accept bank cards. Now Big City Bank has to recover this lost revenue and suddenly we find ourselves paying The Bank for the privilege of doing business with them.The Barrell Store

With the help of the Barrell Man let me wander back to the Valley. Back in August I posted about inflation here and expressed my outrage at the fifty % increase in the price of a barrell (“Inflation Strikes the Valley…,” 8/5). I notice the Barrell Man’s inventory is flush these days. For a while this summer nothing but weeds flourished in the space. A few days ago I saw him gathering the walnuts from his driveway. His sight has dimmed and these days the Barrell Man finds most of the mast with the tip of his cane. He will be ninety come February, the Barrell Man tells me, and when he goes about his chores, he relies on a portable oxygen pack to help him get around. He is still active, up and out, completing what needs to be done about his place. I was curious about the big stack of rolling stock he had for sale at $15 apiece, where he had found a new supplier. I learn the Barrell Man’s wife had come across an ad in the paper. Some business in Seattle had barrells for sale at two dollars a unit. Two trips to north Seattle at the cost of nearly a day’s travel—plus the two dollar per drum outlay--yielded that big stack of barrells neatly piled along his fence. 

Now here’s the economics of doing business in the Valley. I noticed the “zero” had been smudged out and replaced with a “2.” Twelve dollars a barrell. The two dollar cost passed on to the consumer. The Barrell Man went on to explain his supplier offered to deliver the barrells for five dollars a unit. He figured—and who could blame him—his time would be better spent harvesting his walnut crop than chaperoning barrells out to the Valley. Out came the paint again. The “2”smudge became  a “5,” and it now costs us $15 for a colorful metal drum, a fifty per cent increase to those of us who desire to do a little outdoor incinerating. The Barrell Man still nets his ten dollars profit. His extra cost is passed along to us…Valley economics pure and simple.

But I don’t have to buy a barrell, and if I want one, I much prefer my money stays in the Valley than fund the lifestyle of some Big City Bank CEO. There’s value in a barrell; none whatsoever in a service charge, especially when there’s no change in the amount or quality of the service rendered. The Barrell Man’s economics I can understand. Not so The Bank’s; and I appreciate them even less.

Breaking news! Just in to The Ripple. Big City Bank of America has decided to abandon its plan to charge a five dollar monthly fee to its customers. You don’t suppose the ten thousand B of A’s clients (in our state alone) who jumped ship and defected to a credit union might be responsible for this change of heart? Apparently it was only a joke in the first place. Don’t you just love it when the consumer has the last laugh!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Got Orange?….

Pumpkin field…October, when the world is pumpkin wonderful…

(with apologies to e.e. cummings)

As Gladys and I looked over my shoulder and she over her fenders today, we could see a gauzy curtain of snow settling on Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascades. The garden shivers and daily the summer colors fade, chameleon-like, into winter’s drab. In fact most of the color is gone, exchanged for brown decay…all color, that is, except one. Orange. Yes, orange rules these days. In our garden mounds of orange announce themselves where they have plumped up above the leaves. I have watched them nearly from blossom to globe, first green softballs, then to soccer balls, and now orange basketballs. In summer they seem to grow larger by the day. Now they squat in their orange splendor, wondering what’s in store for them next.Pumpkin porch

Yes, orange is the color of the day. On porches and railings, guarding sidewalks, bulging from bins at the grocery stores or piled along storefronts like some Cristo study in orange. I saw three large truckloads of pumpkins cruise by the house heading south, destiShelves of orangenation most likely Remlinger Farms. Beebe's flower stand offers any color you want these days, as long as it’s orange. For the pumpkin purchaser’s convenience three sizes of pumpkin bear price tags: you have your five dollar globe, your three dollar Momma bear Pick your takepumpkin, and your dainty diminutive for just a buck. And Kurt’s vegetable stand is a blur of orange as you drive by.

Pumpkins are really just a species of edible gourd. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word appears in literature (the pumpkin is a very literary vegetable, you know) as early as 1647 and gives variant spellings of “pumkin, “pomkin,” and “punkin.” The word seems to have some onomatopoeic value: “plumpkin/pumpkin”--(a “pumped up” kin?). Displaying the crop

Pumpkins dominate the season; the rites of fall center around this cheerful gourd. Just watch a child walk by a stack of pumpkins, see him stop dead in his tracks in wonder. Wander with your children through a pumpkin patch and watch their confusion: so many…which one? (Chances are it will be the largest…and guess who has to tote the globe to the car?) It’s the pumpkin latte time of year. Soon there’ll be that wedge of golden brown pie crowned with whipped cream daring you to find just a little more room for it after the holiday feast. The pumpkin is the patron saint of Halloween; if you don’t have a globe hollowed out and spitting candlelight when the spirits of the eve stop by to call, well I guess you’re the Grinch of Halloween. Get in the spirit of orange or your car might just be transformed into a pumpkin on All Saints’ Day!Pumpkin sincerity

I can’t recall a year we didn’t have a pumpkin patch in the backyard garden. (If nothing else, we are sincere gardeners.) If you have children, they deserve their own pumpkin patch. Pumpkins are easy to grow—and unlike tomatoes they aren’t vulnerable to late blight—and they’re much cheaper from your own garden: at twenty-nine cents a pound some of those big fatties can run up your bill.

At harvest time I would clip the stems from the stalks and my daughter would lift one at time, line them up, and count back down the row after she placed each one. I was mercenary even in those times and I’m ashamed to admit now, but I would warn my little girl as she struggled with each heavy pumpkin: “Be careful not to snap the stems or you won’t be able to sell them.” Those were the days I sold honey roadside. After the wares were displayed on the bed of the truck, daughter and I would line the driveway with our pumpkins. Reader boards, garish signs, or search lights couldn’t have been better advertising than that row of orange globes highlighting  the driveway. Even though just up the road Kurt’s vegetable stand had pumpkins galore, city folk, dazzled by orange, would stop and buy one of our pumpkins. When they asked the price, (I would tell them the proceeds were for my daughter’s college education… her“yellidge” education, she called it… and the cash would leap happily from their wallets).  Every nickel eventually went to the U of W, I’m sure. We would sell all our entire crop, a dozen or so, the first couple of weekends in October. Field PumpkinsWith so many pumpkin patches in the area, plus the truckloads of orange that are available everywhere, I’m amazed all these pumpkins find homes; however, every season as October 31st approaches, these mountains of gourds have dwindled away until just a few misshapen orphans remain. (Seems to me I remember viewing the hippo exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo several years ago where a keeper was tossing pumpkins into the cavernous mouths of the huge “river horses” who crunched them between their jaws like they were eating grapes.)

Our former neighbors “Those Rollers,”to my knowledge, are the biggest advocates of the cheerful gourd. Their other gardening efforts were less than spectacular, but where pumpkins were concerned, those Rollers were most sincere--Mr. Darren Roller particularly so. (Darren was a responsible dog owner, too, and shortly after his family moved in next door, he erected an electric fence to discourage his American Bulldog “Big Otis” from wandering over to our place and inflicting serious damage by lashing us with that ever happy tail of his.)

Also a responsible pumpkin grower, Darren erected a hog wire fence along our property line to keep his pumpkins from trespassing. One season a pumpkin tried to escape his patch, was most sincere about squeezing its way through the mesh, nearly did, and but fOn the fenceor a rapid growth spurt, would have succeeded, too. The pumpkin’s plumping itself into captivity destined it for the carving knife; on Halloween day it was eviscerated where it hung. I cut a grimace into its posterior and posed it with a grinning Kyle Roller (Kyle is the one on the left, by the way). Jack and friendHalloween eve, its innards aglow, Jack ‘o the Fence smiled away as if it were a spirit hovering midair.

Jack's braces

Most pumpkins this time of the year are destined for carving. In fact pumpkin carving has developed into a fine art…something about the orange skin of the squash that makes it a rotund canvas for those skilled with a knife. (A local pumpkin artist I hear has recently been invited to the White House to display her talents. I believe she intends to gouge the likeness of Kim Kardashian into the flesh of a carefully selected gourd. A waste of talent, time and pumpkin it seems to me…although I wouldn’t mind a bit if Kim—or the whole lot of the Kardashians, for that matter—were changed into pumpkins.) No talent like that around here for our garden pumpkins. Just enough crude geometry to allow the candlelight to seep into the darkness. However, we do have a pumpkin tradition in our family that requires no more talent other than a basic level of literacy. The flesh of the pumpkin is easily scarified and while the pumpkins are still in their “green” form, each year I carve the name of a family member or friend into their skins. Come pumpkin picking time, those so “personalized” are invited into the garden to claim their pumpkins. I’ve attached a couple examples past…and present:Personalized pumpkin

 

Binkel

 

Aside from pumpkin aesthetics these globes, too, are the stuff food is made of; you don’t have to be a hippo yourself to enjoy the taste of pumpkin. At their dinnertime my favorite lady detective, Precious Ramotswe of Botswana (Alexander McCall Smith’s “The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency”series), frequently brings home a fat pumpkin for husband Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni and their two adopted children. I think those who settle for pumpkin that has been scooped out of a store-bought can are missing out on the real thing if they don’t set aside some orange for the kitchen, bake it and use its flesh for a variety of delightful dishes. 

This weekend I will harvest the most sincere pumpkin from the season’s crop, set it beside the woodstove to warm (I simply can’t abide thrusting my hand into the chilly innards of a pumpkin), and most likely carve into my victim a primitive face very much the same as last year’s.

And if you haven’t done so already, I expect you’ll do likewise. October thirty-first is almost upon us, so go fetch the pumpkin and weapon of your choice, put your talent to the sticking place, and carve a face guaranteed to delight those who’ll show up on your doorstep to collect their annual quota of empty calories.

Oh, yes…and don’t forget to roast the seeds!Alas, poor jack