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Monday, December 31, 2012

From the Editor: I Hereby Resolve…Not to Resolve…

The New Year ThreatensAside from the fact the seasonal Christmas tree has been cast aside (it’s propped against the backyard hedge, refuge and feeding station for wintering birds) and the thermometer reads thirty-seven degrees, you don’t have to look at the calendar to know what time of the year it is. Just go to the mailbox. The last few days I’ve found numerous flyers from local fitness centers mingled with the other junk mail. That time of the year again when the health and fitness clubs hope to cash in on our holiday overindulgences, when the old body mass index (BMI) has gone frightfully askew from all the nonstop grazing. And don’t those athletically sculpted models in all their glossy glory make us ashamed of our recent, profligate behavior—how we’ve let ourselves go--and the fact those well-toned bodies and flat, rippling bellies might belong to Olympic athletes (Tell me those abs weren’t airbrushed in!), Iron Men or decathloners, doesn’t make us any less chastised. And Freddie’s? Add insult to injury: those shelves of holiday sugar plums have disappeared overnight and in their place are displays of exercise weights, stationary bikes, exer-cycles, treadmills, all those engines of torture to build your own home torture chamber.

What is it about the New Year that sends us into the makeover mode? All that stress of the holidays and now heaped on top of that angst, more stress, stress to reform, set goals, map out the New Year’s  future. Whatever happened to carpe diem; when the New Year comes booming in, now we feel the days, weeks, months are seizing us!  January 1st has become a formidable threat instead of a promise. Yes, I’m talking about New Year’s resolutions, when the tabula rasa (oh so much white space on that new calendar you picked up at the drugstore) beckons and seems to say, “Let’s not repeat all the previous year’s follies and failures.”

Resolutions. I gave on them up years ago. If I lose or gain a pound or two, so what. Is this the year I finally build a chicken coop and stock it with a few hens? Maybe. Maybe not. That garden shed? Not likely. And the daughter’s dollhouse I started twenty-five years ago? I probably won’t add a single shingle (besides, now I have a grandson, the pressure’s off!). Why set yourself up for disappointment? If you want to set a New Year’s goal, what’s so different about February 1st? March 1st… April? When New Year’s Day dawns, I say sit up in bed for a little retrospection and ask: “What all did I get done in the year that’s gone by?” (Let’s see: I scraped, primed, and painted the south side of the house, the carport as well. Planted and raised a garden and stored the produce, extracted thirteen gallons of honey, read a few books, tended The Ripple….).  As the New Year bursts in upon you and you feel pressured to make a resolution, here’s a suggestion. Resolve to get out of bed every morning and let the day take you where it will. If you busy yourself, you’re certain to have accomplished something, be a little bit ahead of the game. At the end of each day, you can ask, “Just what have I gotten done today?”

If the answer is “Nothing,” well, maybe you should have stayed in bed after all. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Confessional…

Nativity sceneBut, thinkin’ of the things yer’d like to see upon that tree,

Jest ‘fore Christmas be as good as yer kin be!

Eugene Fields

When I was eight or nine years old, our family attended a log church in a small Eastern Washington town. The structure had been there for so many years the first tier of pine logs above the footing, either because of decay or termites, was crumbling; wood pulp spilled from the core of the logs and spilled out on the lawn. That was the condition of the church when I knew it, and all the years I did know it, this deterioration seemed static and never seemed to worsen. The little church was nondenominational, a community church, and my parents most likely attended because  it was the closest fit to their Methodist comfort.

My vision of myself in those days derives from a black and white photograph, real or imagined. I am wearing a white shirt with those fifties’ style pointed collars. My hair is combed neatly, slicked down, I suppose, with tap water, my forelocks combed into a neat little wave breaking on my forehead. I am smiling in the picture. The smile does not look posed and appears to be the genuine smile of a happy kid. There may or may not be a few freckles marching toward my nose. My front teeth are small blocks of ivory, waiting for my mouth to grow into them. But there is something in the twinkle of those eyes that goes beyond boyish mischief, something, perhaps, akin to malice….

Do I know that kid? Because of the unspeakable thing he did during   that Christmas, I wonder if I even care to. “Whatever were you thinking then!” I question. But when you’re an eight year old, thinking is so new to you, you don’t do much—if any—of it. I saw a play recently that dredged up from memory the deplorable incident, and while I can offer no excuse for what I did that night, thanks to the production I attended, I think I can understand at last why I might have done it.

Mostly they’re called Christmas “pageants,” the little plays children in the congregation perform before and to the delight of their parents. I don’t believe my eight year old ears had ever heard the word “pageant” in those days. A“program” was what it was called in our church, and one evening the week before Christmas our mediocre talents were called upon to reenact the Christmas Story. In Book-It Theatre the other day I saw the performance of a play about such a  church Christmas program, and while I was greatly entertained, I came away with a bit more insight into an eight year old’s behavior-- my own.

Those who direct a church Christmas programs usually have a limited pool of talent from which to choose and this restriction often results in the little performers being typecast: last year’s Mary is again this year’s; cast as a shepherd or wise man once and the same little victim must reprise the role year after year, and that can lead to a mutiny among the talent. The play I saw was about just such a rebellion, the protest of a strong-willed little boy (Owen Meany) who refused to be the Angel of the Lord one more time. (It’s dark and scary up there,” Owen protests about his being winched up into the flys every year. The little mutineer wins out and is recast as the baby Jesus.) My insight did not come from Owen, however, but from his best friend Johnny. Johnny complains (to the audience only; to adults he is meek and obedient) he is tired of being cast as Joseph in pageant after pageant. His gripe? “Joseph never does anything. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t sing. He just stands silent throughout the entire play!”

Neither did the Joseph in our Christmas program. I should know—I was the program’s Joseph that year. Dutiful Joseph—Silent Joe. In the Christmas story about all you can say for Joseph, son of David, is he’s just there. The only thing he really does is follow God’s directions and then his wife, Mary. He asks no questions, doesn’t even “ponder” in his heart as Mary does. A follower, that’s what Joseph is. He doesn’t flap heavenly angel wings, carry a shepherd’s crook,  bear gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh…. Joseph stands at Mary’s side as dumb as the gentle beasts that surround the manger.

In the previous year’s program I had had a singing part, stood before the audience and belted out the carol “The Gentle Beasts.” The following Christmas my Joseph just sat there next to a makeshift manger in which the baby Jesus, an “eyes open and close” doll, proxy for Our Savior the Lord and on loan from some little girl, lay in slumber. Now where’s the glory in that? And soon Joseph became so very bored. As the the program unfolded around him, Joseph of Nazareth reached into his robe pocket and discovered an eight penny nail ( to this day how the nail came to be there I have no idea), turned it over a time or two in his hands, and then proceeded to tap the head of the nail on the head of the baby Jesus: “Tap, tap, tappety tap” tapping throughout most of the program. That’s all I remember about the night’s performance. Who played Mary and why she didn’t come to the defense of the Son of God, (very unmotherly of Mary), I cannot say. Why the Angel of the Lord didn’t visit swift retribution upon my head remains a mystery still.

The year before, my rendition of “The Gentle Beasts” brought me praise and acclaim. My Joseph the next year earned this thespian quite the opposite: a severe scolding by two of the prominent church mothers, staid and proper ladies both (“You should be ashamed of yourself treating the Baby Jesus like that in front of the audience, in front of us! Shame, shame on you! Well, we never…!”). Strange, but I can’t recall being chastised by my mother who surely herself must have been chastised and embarrassed by the recalcitrant behavior of her son. To this day whenever I recall that  tongue lashing by those two avenging mothers, I feel my ears redden.

I was not among the cast of next year’s program. I was not asked to perform then, nor do I remember ever being asked again. Any subsequent participation was in the role of spectator. And it wasn’t until recently I realized just how steeped in irony my rude antics, shamefully involving a nail, must have appeared.

                                   *          *          *          *

The Ripple wishes one and all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An Out of Valley Experience: The Ripple Goes to the Big City…

Five dollar candy barI’m on the twenty-six floor of the Westin Hotel looking out a  panorama window at the Seattle nightscape. The Space Needle,  its annual Christmas tree ablaze, juts skyward. The glass faces of the skyscrapers remind me of crossword puzzles: darkened windows, the dark squares; glowing windows, the white. A huge crane named “Vulcan” is festooned with strands of blue lights. The navigation lights wink red off and on. In the Sound to the west, ferry boats twinkle light across the dark waters. Down below on Fifth Avenue headlights stream by…the evening commute. A glowing worm that is the monorail glides past beneath me. Even from this airy remove I hear Big City bustle: the throaty roar of diesel transit busses, the angry honking of car horns,  the shriek of sirens ( I hear them constantly but the flashing lights are lost in the canyons; I never see the vehicles from which they issue), the whine of jet engines overhead on approach to Sea-Tac.Christmas Seattle

This country boy is accustomed to daily visits to a Valley filled with pastures, cows and cornfields and to look out at the lightshow that is Seattle verges on culture shock. I’m reminded of a movie I saw as a kid: “Aaron Slick from Pumpkin Creek,” the main character in which is a poseur for a city slicker. As I look around our well-appointed hotel room (“suites,” I think they’re called) which is much more suited to a blue chip tycoon than someone who wears barn boots and shovels organic on his garden, I feel like Jed Clampett must have felt after rattling into Beverly Hills in his fender-flapping flivver.

The next two days we were in the thick of it, the ebb and flow of city life (a great deal more “flow” than “ebb), the crush of shoppers, my daily walk a blur of crosswalks, crossing signals, and dodging right hand turn traffic. I have never had so many aggravated assaults on my wallet in a two day period. Everyone and everything wanted a piece of it. By the end of the day the leather was  literally scorched from the friction of removing and restoring it to my back pocket . Street musicians, charity workers, and panhandlers all seemed to have claims on my folding money. (Note: after this country fellow’s visit to the Big City, the Valley might just have its very first panhandler! Look for an old man and a vintage girl’s bicycle standing on the corner by Swiss Hall “flying the sign.” “Folding money appreciated, please. Change is just extra freight…and ‘God Bless!’”)

Escalators. I remember the first one I ever saw frightened me. I was just a kid standing in terror on the brink of a stairs that jumped up out of the floor: “Step on a crack, and get thrown on your back…when to step, where to step…. Jed Clampett to Elly May: “ Elly, they’s these steps that do the up and down walkin’ for yer…saves a body a whole passel of shoe leather, don’t they!” In those days I believe the treads were made of hardwood. I read somewhere about the drunk who kept throwing himself down the escalator each time it returned him to the top: it was his experience that when you tumble down a flight of stairs, you ended up at the bottom and there you stayed. And there was the small trauma, too, at the end of the flight: how to disembark without falling on your face. These days, even a country boy is an old hand at escalators. Just step on a flat surface, grab the ascending handrail, trust to the ascent or descent, and hope the thing doesn’t break mid-trip.

Experience Christmas in the Big City, and you’re a child again. Macy's Christmas windowI stand in front of the Macy’s Christmas window, mouth agape, frozen in glee as the Christmas train makes its circuit across a winter wonderland, chugs through mountain tunnels only to appear again to my amazement. The Christmas tree in Westlake Square: a wonder of lights. Mac Mansions of gingerbread in the lobby of the Sheraton (this year’s theme: “animated movies”). A gigantic star four stories high illuminates one corner of  Macy’s (the old Fredrick and Nelson building), emitting enough lumens to summon all the wise men for miles around. Brothers Grimm G. House

The sense that I’m out of my element never subsides. I can’t help but think I’ve left the turnip truck double parked somewhere. Somewhere…I have a poor sense of direction; if a store has more than one room, I become disoriented (I’ve been turned loose to fend for myself). Time and again it happens. I pass the same shoe display, march through the same “parfume” fragrance, trip past the same manikin (when one is lost, orienteers claim, he wanders in circles). A few particularly anxious minutes are spent in a Victoria’s Secret store. (It takes a certain modicum of courage for a seasoned male like me to enter such a store…a stranger in a strange, strange land. A new definition of a hero, perhaps?). Though my confusion probably lasted no more than five minutes, it seemed like a millennium. I pass the same young saleslady at least three times (nice boots, I can’t help but notice; by the way, ladies’ boots are the rage this season). A friendly smile my first circuit; the second, her smile is quizzical; the third, tentative, more suspicious if anything. “I have to get out of here before she calls the police,” I think in a near panic. Never before has this country boy seen so much lace, so much pink…so much intimacy on display. I feel like I’m adrift in a flamingo nightmare. At last I summon my wits, traipse my entrance backwards in memory, and discover the exit--through which I hastily bolt. Whew…now I know how a rat feels when it’s finally escasped a maze!

The panic returned at the hotel room the second night. In strange situations, I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s human curiosity to explore one’s new surroundings. As soon as we keyed entrance to what would be our new home for the next two days and nights, we set out on a quest of discovery. (“Wow, a flush toilet! This shower head is bigger than TWO breadboxes! One entire wall a flat screen t.v.! And a king-sized bed that would meet the approval of your Royal Highness from any kingdom. Amenities: pens, notepads and a pastel green bar of soap molded in the shape of a leaf, creams, lotions, shampoos. In the coffee bar Starbucks and Tazo teas…). And in corner a special curiosity: “The Refreshment Center.” Wonder what surprises it contains…. I open the cabinet doors and find a mini-fridge on the right, a little pantry on the left. Let’s explore the contents, shall we? In the pantry a large bottle of water, a bag of M & M peanuts, a Snickers bar (family size!), and a half bottle of wine (St. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon). I pop open the fridge to see what refreshing “amenities” it contains. Cans of soda, regular and diet, a can of Red Bull, a half bottle of wine (St. Michelle again: Chardonnay). Next to it a can of Heineken beer. The door trays are a mini-bar. Miniature bottles of Jack Daniels, some brand of gin, and two dainty frosted bottles of vodka  "(“Why, Jethro! This dang thing’s plumb full of moonshine!”) On the bottom tray two cans of some sort of exotic libation and a Kit Kat bar. The last item—and closest to the door--one lonely Twix bar. Should we need refreshing, there was a variety of items by which we might be refreshed.

Our last night. My wife decides she’ll investigate the refreshment corner for herself. She popped open the fridge door and knelt down for a closer examination of the bottom shelf contents. After she shut the fridge, however, she noticed a small card taped to the front. “What’s the matter?” I asked after I hear a very audible gasp. “Did you read this note?” I hadn’t bothered. She read aloud: “Choose wisely. Anything you remove from the refreshment center will be charged to your hotel room.” This little warning caused us an instant rush of fiscal anxiety. (“Why, Granny, this here thing’s booby-trapped!) Apparently each item rested on some sort of weight sensor. Remove the weight and “wham” an electronic bill hit your charge card. For the next few minutes we wracked our memories in desperation, tried to recall what items we had lifted from the center…me, the bottle of water, the M & Ms (to entice my wife with her favorite candy), both bottles of wine…were all I could recall. My wife…the bottle of vodka, (just couldn’t resist the exotic frosted glass packaging). We stare at each other in disbelief. “Well!” my wife blurted indignantly. “If any of those are charged to our bill, they’re coming home with us!” We both felt we’d been scammed.

Sometime during the early hours of morning our bill was slipped under the door. I was the first to arise and found two neatly folded sheets lying there in the dark. I picked them up nervously--as if I’d just been served a subpoena--went into the bathroom, shut the door, and switched on the light. As if I were opening a letter bomb, I gingerly pried the sheets apart and peeked at their contents: “Room charge; State tax; Seattle Tourism surcharge; Occupancy Tax. Room charge… (we booked two nights)….”

Oh, and one last item: a Twix bar, four dollars and nineteen cents…plus tax, of course.  Well, it couldn’t hurt to have one extra stocking stuffer, now could it?

Friday, December 14, 2012

“A Right Jolly Old Elf”…Impersonating a Celebrity…

Santa at work“Just what do you think you’re doing?” I ask myself. I’m driving to Snohomish to fulfill a favor for a friend, a BIG favor, a favor weighted with awesome responsibility. Plenty of time to think on the way and my thoughts turn to the roles we play as we chug along life’s perilous path. First, we come into the world as “son” or “daughter.” Childhood friends and playmates call us by name—or nickname—and we respond in kind. Then we become “my husband” or “my wife” and suffer the phase of private personal endearments. Children come along and our birth names disappear, resurface as “Mom” and “Dad.” These give way to our “Grand” roles and from little mouths you hear “Grammie “or “Boompa” or whatever seems to stick.

I glance over at two cardboard boxes, my traveling kit, and mutter, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” My friend Jim called two days before and dropped a bombshell question prefaced with:” I have a big favor to ask you.” “Watch out!” “Red flag!” And my thoughts immediately went to excuses I might use to neutralize the threat, but short of a wedding or funeral, none of which were pending on the calendar, my mind went blank.

The sight of a pair of shiny combat boots riding on the floorboards sends a wave of anxiety over me. The last time I remember wearing them was when I wielded a chainsaw on a log deck of alder.When was that? Years ago, certainly. I had almost forgotten about the boots, and when I went to retrieve them, they were webbed over by spiders and sprinkled with their byproducts. A heavy brushing and two coats of blacking made them presentable.

“Our church is having a Santa Breakfast on Saturday,” Jim informed me. “Our Santa had a conflict and can’t perform….would you be our Santa this year?” Silence. “Hello?  Hello? “Are you there?” Yes, I was there--unfortunately. “Can’t you do it!” I plead. “The children all know me,” Jim explained, “My Santa wouldn’t be credible.” I knew I was doomed.

The eve before the Santa affair, my wife employed her best hairdressing skills to tease the wig and beard into rats’ nests of white curls. Santa’s pants were a bit short, as was his coat. The pant cuffs barely covered the boots; a white, long-sleeved undergarment  tucked into the gloves concealed my wrists. Dress rehearsal was an embarrassment. My wife, between bursts of laughter, said I looked like Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. When I peered into a mirror, what I could see through the whorls of ratted wig reminded me of folksinger Arlo Guthrie at this remove in his career.

One might think six decades of life should have prepared me for just about anything. Stage fright, at my age? But mine was no frivolous debut. I had to walk a fine line between disappointing or terrifying my audience. Remember the shocked look on the face of the kid in the Norman Rockwell painting when he finds the Santa suit in the bottom drawer of his father’s chest of drawers? And a too hearty Ho! Ho! Ho! would be certain to elicit shrieks of horror from the more sensitive little tykes. “How many kids are we talking about here, Jim?”I had asked. “Oh, not too many, twenty or so, maybe.” I should be able to survive that many, I thought.

I’m pacing back and forth in my small dressing room. “You’re a great looking Santa,” Jim reassures me after pinning a broad black belt around my waist and giving me the once over.The Stand-in A nice lady named Michelle is going to play Santa’s helper, lead me through the gym to my place of honor. My entrance cue is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I hear the faint refrains of carols coming from the gym and with each one my nerves are strained a bit more. A smile and arm gesture from Michelle and off I jingle to my grand entrance (fate?).

Stand-in Santa and his helper wend their way through the breakfast tables. After a few friendly waves to set the bells velcroed to his arm a’jingle,  Stand-in Santa roars a hearty “Merry Christmas!” and a few lusty “Ho! Ho! Ho’s!”, even pauses to shake hands with a grown-up or two. Just as Stand-in Santa is beginning to think he might actually pull this charade off , he’s met by a gauntlet of kids. Then things get a bit crazy. One little orange-stocking capped gentleman grabs Stand-in Santa’s beard, gives it a yank, “So who’s Santa this year?” he smirks. Stand-in Santa somehow manages to fend this little heckler off. Suddenly Stand-in is clutched around the waist by a young lady caught up in a Santa frenzy. “Ho! Ho! Whoa, ho…! A “Be careful, Santa won’t be able to eat all those cookies if you squeeze his tummy”releases him from her wrestling hold. Stand-in Santa can’t wait to get to his place of honor which turns out to be a sofa in the foyer of the church. “Straight line, now, everybody, straight line!” Stand-in Santa finally gains a bit of control over the situation. He looks at the line of kids: “Twenty little visitors, yeah, sure!”-- the ragged line stretches nearly down the hall.The line begins here

The next hour seems like a dream, and like most dreams this one at times didn’t  make a whole lot of sense. Here are some of the things Stand-in Santa remembers. (Note: when Santa talks, imagine a voice in the lower register, baritone, if you will, with just enough volume to converse with the kiddos without scattering them.) Stand-in tried to give each little visitor the whole of Santa’s attention regardless of that line that stretched down the hall. His routine: “And just who do I have sitting on Santa’s knee? Oh, that’s a very nice name. Have you always had that name?” Next question was actually a question within a question: “Now do you know what question Santa always has to ask?” The answer never varied: “What do I want for Christmas?” (These kids were no strangers to Santa’s knee.) “Oh, no!” Stand-in Santa replies, “Santa has to ask if you were a good boy or girl…were you naughty or nice?” Stand-in Santa has them on this one. But not for long, though. I am relieved to hear they have all been good (except for one honest young man who felt he might have backslid just a little since our last visit). Jett and Santa

So what did these little revelers want for Christmas? I was proud of them for the most part. Most wanted just one present: a video game (“Santa has elves who are game programmers; he’ll pass the word to them; will you promise Santa you’ll go outside once in a while and get some exercise?”). An “American Girl Doll piano” (Huh? Better check with the elves on that one). A Barbie Dollhouse. A giant stuffed animal (“Santa will have his elves make you a huge stuffed frog.” “’I don’t like frogs!’ A big stuffed dog, then? Ok.’”) One young fellow wanted “a big toy.” If you’re going to ask for a toy, makes sense to Santa to go for “Big.” Another had come  unprepared. He settled on my knee and whispered he didn’t know what he wanted. “Ho! Ho! Ho!…Santa will put your name on the ‘to be surprised list,’ then.” Another young fellow knew all too well what he wanted and rattled off a list so long Santa had to interrupt him with a candy cane, wish him a Merry Christmas and send him on his way. One little girl didn’t wait for Santa to begin his routine. Her little brow was furrowed with worry. Her problem: “I’ll be in Disneyland for Christmas.”Good reason for concern. “Ho! Ho! I’m glad you told Santa. He might have found no one at home and not left your present. Won’t happen now he knows where you’ll be!” She was smiling when I lifted her off my knee and handed her a candy cane.

The parent paparozzi were out in force. Each wanted a picture of the festive occasion and Stand-in Santa was happy to oblige.  However, one very little girl was having none of Santa, Stand-in, or not. When I reached to lift her to my knee, she lost her toddler composure and erupted in tears. Only through persistent parental encouragement, her face awash with tears, did she finally lean on my knee. Like an old pro, Stand-in Santa distracted her with the bowl of candy canes. Tears subsided. Photo snapped.

By the time the last little visitor was lifted from his knee, Stand-in Santa was all sweat in his borrowed suit, his glasses fogged over, energy drained. This Santa proxy can now cross another jolly little experience off his bucket list, but before he does, he hopes Logan, Graedon, Bella, Olivia, Jeremiah, David, Collin (an extra checkmark for Collin who knew he was a bit too grown up for Santa’s knee but like a good boy, humored his mother), Owen, and Jett have the Merriest of Christmases ever. And by the way, Ms. Bridget, Olive the other reindeer said to be sure and wish you a  very, very Merry Christmas, too!Bridget and Santa

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Valley Walk…With Plenty of Apologies…

Tony in the FallYesterday I was, as the Scots so quaintly phrase it, “ riding shank’s mare” down the Valley: simply put, I was afoot (or as we Yanks counter, “hoofing it”). I stopped at Ed’s driveway to chide Ginnifer Broers for shaming the rest of us into stringing our holiday lights. Ginnifer was using an interactive dog toy to exercise her dog when I walked up. “Oh, I’m not done yet,” she laughed. Pressure…oh, the pressure! If she follows through with her plans, the Broers and their mountain range of lights might just scuttle Beebes’ Oasis of the Seas this year. (Just a heads up to those Beebes.)

I couldn’t help notice a second dog in the driveway and straight away recognized it from a recent “ride” in the Valley. “Whose dog is that?” I asked, motioning to a black dog of questionable lineage nosing around her lawn. The dog wore a yellow cattle tag with some sort of inscription penned on it. I’m told the dog owns the Frohnings. Now I know just a bit more about my walking companion on my last visit to the Valley. This put me in mind of a similar companion I had years ago on my walks.

In those days, I reminded her, she and Ed also had a black dog . Whenever I passed their driveway, the dog decided I needed a walking companion and would tag along. Now while I did not in the least feel the need for canine companionship, I was tolerant and allowed my new friend to trot alongside. On the return trip, however, it looked like my shadow was intent on following me to the ends of the earth, if that was my destination. On past his driveway he padded contentedly as if we were dog and master. I approached the last corner by Van Hulles’ and the dog still contentedly trotted at my side. It was necessary, at this point, to “discourage” him from continuing further; I didn’t want his blood on my hands when we reached the state highway. A stern tone and harsh words halted him, but when I moved on, he followed. As a last resort I pegged small stones at him until he finally got the message and slunk home. This scenario repeated for the next few walks. One day as I walked by, the dog was elsewhere. Ed, who was puttering about in his driveway, smiled as I approached. “Where’s your dog?” he teased…. Ginnifer pondered a bit when she heard the story: “We had a dog then, but after a couple of months, he just disappeared.” Someone must have walked him out of the Valley, I told her. It wasn’t me.

Click, click, clickety click. I’ve just rounded the corner above Swiss Hall and discover I have two companions, that black, tagged spaniel of Frohnings and some other black and white stubby-tailed dog. I can’t remember asking them to join me, intrude on my musings. At Swiss Hall Stubby heads down the road toward Decks’. Blackie, however, decides I need a little company and off we go…I wondering when he will head for home, he nosing about and stopping frequently to let his fellows know he’s passed by. That it’s his Valley is obvious. He wanders the centerline, the shoulders, oblivious to traffic which has to slow, change lanes, anticipate just where he’ll wander next. In the meantime, I try to be innocuous, nonchalant even: “Dog? What dog? I don’t see a dog.” But I can’t help but think it’s not Blackie taking the blame but me. “Hey, you idiot, if you want to walk your dog, put him on a leash!” But I proceed as if I’m on a solitary constitutional.

Fast forward to yesterday’s walk. I bid adieu to Ginnifer and her dog’s exercise routine, march on down the Valley. Just as my thoughts settled into reverie, it’s click, click, clickety click again…that uninvited Blackie is trotting alongside. Why he didn’t stick around for Ginnifer’s fun and games is a mystery. But after all, he’s a dog. He’s at the mercy of his nose which leads Blackie from one side of the road to the other, sometimes stopping him on the center line where he snuffles about. Cars coming and going slow, edge along; some try to anticipate Blackie’s next move. One driver moves into the oncoming lane only to find Blackie sidling there as well. I sneak a peak at the driver. He’s thrown both arms in the air in frustration: after all, he’s at a complete standstill. As far as the dog’s concerned, these vehicles don’t even exist'; his nose leads him willy nilly from one fragrance to the next.

At this point I feel I owe drivers an explanation. I can’t offer much more than a demonstrative gesture with both hands and a shout as they creep by: “IT’S NOT MY DOG!” This seems to help; they smile and nod apologetically as if to say, “We feel for you, buddy.” On past Swiss Hall with my companion lagging behind to sniff the story of a blade of grass, a post, a rock, then bounding ahead to the next olfactory message. I turn around at Sargent Road, head back. When I turn to look for Blackie, I note a second dog sprinting past the calf pens toward us. I think it’s Hank Van Ness’s shepherd mix. Suddenly I’m Grand Marshal of a dog parade, my companions having no sense of formation or cadence and like two  members of the Stanford Marching Band drift back and forth across the parade ground. On up the road past Swiss Hall where I stop the parade from time to time, throw up my hands and shout: “THEY’RE NOT MY DOGS!” Two pickups pass by, a couple of Valley bird hunters finished for the day, dog carriers with dogs nicely contained in the back.  “THEY’RE NOT MY DOGS!” The drivers laugh and nod: they know all about dogs….

Finally I get some doggone relief. Hank’s dog knows his boundaries, turns and trots back toward the barns. Blackie leaves me at Gramma Snow’s driveway, the point we parted company the day before. Unlike the Broers’ blithesome canine of years ago, I don’t have to shoo him back on down the road.

Shed of my escorts I continue along blithely myself. I come alongside Tony’s house where I see the man of the house removing a mass of leaves from under his steps assisted by an unemployed bean pole. “Did you lose something, Tony?” I joke, “A diamond ring or your Rolex watch?” as I walk to his side. His response: “I did lose a gold ring out front,” he frowns. Not the answer I expected…. “I searched everywhere, even with a metal detector. Never did find it.” I nod sympathetically and then share a story about his old neighbor Tina Streutker. “Tina lost a little gold ring, too, years ago. Had no idea what happened to it. Then one day she and Jerald were sifting compost and the long lost ring surfaced from the heap. ‘I must have vacuumed it off the carpet and out it went into the compost when I emptied the dust receptacle,’ she laughed.” Tony mulls this over for a moment. I’ve hooked him but he doesn’t know it.

And then:“You heard about the fellow who was on a charter boat fishing for blue fin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico?” I set the hook deeper. “He lost his wedding ring overboard and figured it was gone for good.” Tony’s firmly on the line now. “A couple years later the fellow ordered a fancy meal at a New York restaurant, had a tuna side salad. He took a couple of bites and then bit down on something hard. Guess what it was.” A few seconds to ponder possibilities before he answers. “Oh, I don’t know…his wedding ring, I guess?”I’ve got the net out for him  now. “No,”I smile, “a fishbone!” A moment later it sinks in and Tony grins a wide “you got me” grin, wags his finger in my face. I throw my hands in the air, shake my head. “Sorry, Tony,”I apologize and continue on up the road.


















































Sunday, December 2, 2012

Spaced Out By Christmas: From the Editor…

Christmas at Lucky'sCreak, creep, creak, creep, creak, creep…slowly up the ladder into the attic. Wasn’t it just yesterday I made this ascent…stowed the last tote full of the trimmings and trappings of Christmas…breathed in that musty attic smell? And here I am again…creak, creep, creak. I wish the years had a little more creep to them and me a little less creak.

“We need to store all the Christmas decorations on the garage shelves,” my wife fretted as she steadied the ladder beneath me. “Next year we’ll do it for sure.” You know, this has been her refrain for years. The simple truth is there’s no space on the garage shelves…crammed full from floor to ceiling… not another square inch. Even the spiders no longer spin their webs there: not enough room. Besides, it would have to be one thin fly that could wedge its way into such clutter. When I ease down the totes step by step, I then have to find floor space to set them. And once all that holiday stuff works its way into the house, you have to jockey everything around to make more space for it. Then there’s the tree; you have to find the space to install it. The house gets smaller every year, I swear. Take something off the shelf, out of the closet, remove it from the pantry. Go to put the item back and two more things are there ahead of you.

We went on an expedition to a shopping mall the other day. There is something about gift shopping that makes me think it’s nap time. No sooner out of the parking lot and into the arena of consumerism than I start to yawn (for some strange reason this condition never manifests itself in grocery stores…the food perhaps?). I don’t know if it’s because I’m suddenly bored or anticipating  the exhaustion I know will inevitably occur. A visit to the mall always brings two things to mind: the first reminds me of the Greek philosopher Diogenes after he spent, at the request of a friend, a few hours at a street bazaar. When his friend, anxious to learn of the philosopher’s impressions of all the stalls, merchants and their merchandise, asked how he liked the bazaar, Diogenes replied: “Never have I seen so many things Diogenes does not need!” Now there’s a man who respected his space! My second observation involves the mall shoppers themselves. They bustle by me  in a hurry to make their next purchase, each carrying a bulging shopping bag. What’s in the bag takes up space…another of its kind has already taken its place on the shelf. Whatever’s in the bag will take up space on the recipient’s shelf, their closet or pantry or counter or under the bed, in the garage (“garage,” a place where automobiles are stored or repaired).

I read a New Yorker article by David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, a few weeks ago. He was purging his apartment of owls—Sedaris made the mistake of mentioning to friends he liked owls. Before he knew it, he was inundated by owl tschotskes:  figurines, pictures…a coffee mug with the inscription: “Owl always love you.” Space… he needed more space and the owls had to go. In the piece he referenced Christmas gifts to friends and relatives. When he inquired of suitable presents, most told him, “Don’t gift us with anything that takes up space; we’d just as soon you donate to the local pet shelter on our behalf.”

This post is an unusually short one for The Ripple and while cyberspace is vast and spacious, readers this time of the year will appreciate the short space of time in which they’ll need to read it. After all, as the saying goes, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The same, I’ve observed over the years, holds true for Christmas. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Saturday Soup…

heatBeautiful soup, so rich and green,

Waiting in a hot tureen!

Who for such dainties would not stoop?

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!

Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!

Soo-oop of the e—e—vening,

Beautiful, beauti—FUL SOUP!


Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,

Game, or any other dish?

Who not give all for two p

ennyworth only of beautiful Soup?

Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?

Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!

Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!

Soo---oop of the e—e—vening,

Beautiful, beauti-FUL SOUP!

Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland

Thanksgiving ‘12 is behind us; we’ve been singed by Black Friday; the winter solstice less than a month away. Out on the highway cars packing trees zip by. Today I saw the first silly grill wreath of the season smiling away on a Suburban. Soup season is upon us.

Back in the early ‘80s we decided our home was a bit confined; our growing family needed room to stretch, some additional space to roam indoors, so we added a room that increased the homestead square footage by about a fourth. In that room we installed a brick hearth and a woodstove…one of the best decisions we ever made. Thanksgiving several years ago a nasty fall storm ( you may remember that one) cut our power. We had a houseful of guests that holiday, twenty-seven if memory serves. Two o’clock that afternoon the lights—and the oven—went out. The woodstove saved our bacon, or turkey, rather: boiled potatoes, squash, green vegetable—we even employed a tent of foil to direct the heat from a stove vent to the roasting pan and raised the turkey’s core temp safely beyond the salmonella threshold. When the power came on eight hours later, what company remained was turkey-sated and weaving toward the guestrooms in a trytophan trance.

Soup. I know there may be other main courses worthy of poetry, but offhand none come to mind--except soup…there’s the Mock Turtle’s poem above (“Mock Turtle soup?) and children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak penned “Chicken Soup with Rice (“…sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice). And what better heat source to simmer soup than a woodstove? A wood powered slow cooker. And what better day to simmer it this time of year than a Saturday? ”Saturday Soup” we call it in our household.

Soup. You can make it simple; you can make it complicated; you can make it up. For my paternal grandfather soup making was a week long process; on Friday he cleaned the refrigerator of leftovers and served up “leftovers” soup. You can serve soup as a side or a main dish. There are soup cookbooks galore. Blogs on woodstove cookery feature hearty soup recipes as well. (What better word  than“hearty”to couple with “soup.”)

I guess you don’t “make” soup as much as you “build” it, and as is the case with anything you build, you need a sturdy foundation upon which to erect it. In the world of soup this base is called “stock.” Just as a weak  foundation makes for a flimsy building, a weak stock takes the “hearty”out of soup. Store bought stock, beef and chicken bouillon, are adequate if you DON’T use it sparingly. I prefer dehydrated stock that comes in cubes: you’re not left with a stack of tin cans to recycle and the cubes save your grocery bill. The Knorr brand makes hefty cubes three times larger than the standard “dice” cubes you find in the soup section of the store. stock in a boxI’ve looked for the Knorr cartons among the soups at Freddies but couldn’t find them. (I first discovered these super cubes at Cost Plus Imports, then at Safeway.) Freddie’s does carry the supers however. You’ll find them in the Hispanic section of the store. I was excited to find Knorr has a new variety: tomato bouillon with chicken flavor. (When the Saturday soup cycle rolls around to chili, I can’t wait to give these tomato cubes a try.)

As homemade anything surpasses store bought, homemade stock is likewise superior. Yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I addressed the wreck of the turkey that was the hallmark of the day. Plenty of good stock there for turkey vegetable, turkey noodle, turkey with rice soup.stock in the making I laid a fire and while the stove heated, I did some bone and knuckle busting and in a jiffy the soup pot was a jumble of wings, thighs ‘n drumsticks, back and breast, the entire pile afloat in a pot half full of water. Four hours later the house was filled with the aroma of  boiled turkey and the pot half full of stock. I donned my turkey apron and dealt with the messy part, separating tidbits from bone, with my eye on soup rewards further down the road.

On the subject of stock: anytime you steam vegetables, set aside the infused water for later use in any vegetable soup. One of my most successful Saturday soups, brimful of flavor and heartiness, I made a couple weeks ago: beef barley soup. The stock? Sorry if this offends the squeamish among you, but when the wife was out of town, I simmered a beef tongue (such fare must be prepared and consumed surreptitiously here) for three and a half hours. I ladled off the stock, cleverly labeled it “beef stock” (well, what’s deceitful about that?), and froze it for the appropriate spot in the Saturday soup queue. “This is wonderful!”my wife exclaimed after she sipped a spoonful of Saturday soup. That was kudos enough for me; no need to discuss the soup specs of the evening, but now I’ve outed myself. I can only say that that Saturday the batch of soup was pot licking good!

In our household we have our favorite Saturday soups, old reliable recipes we reprise Saturday after Saturday during woodstove weather. Sorry, because of limited space, The Ripple will just mention the favorites by name, (a note or two on ingredients gratis, however):

Hamburger barley soup (use those canned tomatoes from the summer’s garden), white chili, sausage soup (two recipes, one with kielbasa sausage, the other,”surprise me sausage,” smoked salmon chowder, clam chowder (don’t spare the garden sweet corn or the summer potatoes for this number), Reuben chowder (another way to use this year’s sauerkraut vintage), Shreveport gumbo (I have yet to have a successful okra crop here on the place), butternut squash soup (or any other squash…cheese pumpkin this year…or just plain pumpkin, a hefty dash of cinnamon or curry, perhaps, to bring a dance to those taste bud, potato-leek soup. Tip: with the cream soups, be sure to stir in a liberal amount of sour cream). Black bean chili con carne, of course, with homemade tomato sauce and homegrown bell pepper (shhhhh, when everyone’s back is turned, sneak in a couple cayenne peppers). The “carne?” Hamburger or sausage or stew meat or all three for the “Where’s the meat” crowd (I’ve slipped in buffalo and venison with no repercussions; those abstaining from mammalia might switch out the mammal for poultry), split pea or lentil (chop up a fat onion, a  few carrots and celery for a more robust soup), beef stew with plump dumplings dancing the rhumba atop the carrots, potatoes, onions, celery, and green pepper…for just a few…. If you want a break from chopping, just soak a pot of beans overnight, add a smoked ham hock or two along with a cube of beef stock. (Tip 2: during soup season it’s wise to have a few nice smoked ham hocks or shanks at the ready.) A big kettle of soup has staying power, too: there should always be enough left over to freeze…a good, quick fix for those cold, winter nights when you don’t want to leave the woodstove long enough to prepare a kitchen meal. We try to have a repertoire of a few favorite varieties in the freezer should we be in the mood for soup.

And what better side dish to have with soup than homemade bread?Wheat bread While your Saturday soup is bubbling away on the woodstove, why not use that gentle radiant heat to stimulate a little yeast? The woodstove mantel is the perfect place to warm the flour, proof the yeast, ready it for the dough. No bread machines, please! You knead to be interactive with the dough: mix the shortening, sugar, and warm water. Roll up your sleeves and let the flour fly! Knead and knead and knead until you set those those glutens free. With the onset of chest pains, the kneading is done. Homemade loaves

What better welcome mat could one have on a cold Saturday night than a warm home and the commingled fragrances of homemade bread and soup? For those clients wishing to sell a home, real estate agents share this tip: “Before a showing your home, get a nose up on the competition by baking a batch of cookies.” Certainly good advice for the warmer months of the year, but if you are marketing your home during the winter months, season your home, I advise, with soup. Soup of the evening…Saturday soup.white chili and more...