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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...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pumpkins and Pies…’Tis the Season…

cheese pumpkinsThe other day I wished our bank manager “Happy Thanksgiving,”a pleasantry which prompted her to share the fact that this year she and her husband decided to scale back their holiday fare. “Just the two us this year,” she said. “No fancy trimmings or anything like that.” “No turkey?” I exclaimed. “Oh, we’ll have turkey,” she reassured me, “but we’re keeping it simple.” “Certainly you’ll have pumpkin pie, though?” She smiled, “Oh, you have to have pumpkin pie!”Yes, you do, and I started preparations for this year’s Thanksgiving pie…well, about this time last year.

We are big on tradition in our household, and I can’t remember the last time we purchased store-bought pumpkin in the can. Pumpkins are easy to grow; it’s a poor gardener who can’t grow a few: two or three plants will easily yield ten of the big globes. A few for Halloween display, a grinning  jack-o-lantern or two, and the extras just sit out there in the patch twiddling their thumbs. It’s one of these leftovers we choose for our holiday pies. However, these are field pumpkins, the best kind for carving geometric grimaces intended to scare the little visitors who show up on your doorstep All Hallow’s Eve. Field pumpkins’ meat is stringy and coarse grained and must be pureed to prepare it for pie filling.

Again last fall we had an excess of pumpkin and so as not to let them go to waste, I thought I’d research some different fresh pumpkin recipes. As you might expect, pumpkin recipes abound on the Net: pie fillings, puddings, cookies, breads, soups…pumpkin sausage (?). Almost all of them called for “cheese pumpkin.” Huh? Cheese pumpkin? I’d never heard of such a thing. Back to the search mode for more information. Cheese pumpkins, I discovered, are a medium-sized, beige colored pumpkin noted for its high sugar content and fine-grained meat. Its name derives from its shape: flat and squat like a round of cheese. When the onslaught of seed catalogs started appearing in the mailbox, I excitedly turned to the squash pages hoping to find cheese pumpkin seed. Territorial Seed had what I was looking for: “Long Island Cheese Pumpkins.” Anxious to give this “exotic” variety a try, I ordered a seed packet and in the spring, I started a half dozen plants indoors.

My efforts paid off this fall when at the end of the season nine Long Island cheese pumpkins squatted  heavily out in the patch. Some, as promised, I gave away (I have friends who as I, are experimental gardeners, too).Cut the cheese pumpkin

In the past I have tried two methods of cooking pumpkin: baking and steaming. This year I selected a nice, ripe cheese pumpkin, halved and cored it, and steamed one half on the woodstove; the other I baked shell upwards on a rimmed cookie sheet for one hour at 350 degrees. Innards removed(The oven pumpkin half required an extra twenty minutes baking time.) Either way, the pumpkin is done when a sharp fork or knife slides easily through the skin. If you elect to bake your cheese pumpkin, you need to consider a couple of things: because of the sugar content, the rim of your pumpkin will caramelize and brown. I scrape this portion away, so there is some wastage. Also, I learned to my dismay that cheese pumpkins contain a lot of water and this surplus can’t be contained by a shallow-rimmed cookie sheet. I spent some valuable time sopping up and scrubbing the oven floor clean of scorched sugar water.

Steaming the pumpkin is perhaps the most efficient way of removing the meat from the shell. I’m not sure which method, baking or steaming, brings out more flavor, but the shell is all you have to discard if you steam the meat—and you won’t have to spend any time on your hands and knees with your head in the oven, either.cut to fit

When the pumpkin cools, scoop out the flesh and set it aside for pies, breads, cookies, soups…(sausage?).

One cheese pumpkin has already made its way into two pies and one tasty batch of pumpkin/raisin bread. The second is cooked up, pies pending. steamed









pie ready

I’ve always been one for innovation, especially where cuisine and the kitchen are concerned. This year’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is going to be “pumped up”: first of all, a cheese pumpkin for the new filling. Secondly, my “secret ingredient” this year comes from a tip I heard on the radio the other day. We did our Thanksgiving meal shopping today, and one of the items on the list was ginger snaps. Yes, the cookies. The tip? Crush a few ginger snaps and sprinkle them on top of the pie crust before you ladle in the filling.

Not in the least do I mind sharing this secret with you—especially since I’ve yet to try it; however, here are a couple more tips (perhaps you know them already):

1. A filling-topped crust tends to slop over when you slide the oven rack into place. For a clean piecrust,  pour only two-thirds of the filling into the crust before you place the pie on the oven rack. Pour the remainder into a smaller container. Once the pie is in the oven, finish topping it off with the rest of the filling.

2. Oh…and whatever number of eggs the recipe calls for, always add one extra. Your guests will thank you for the surplus.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Strange Death in the Valley…

before the stormThere is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

Hamlet, V, ii, ll. 217-224

Does the same sentiment apply to crows I wonder…? I’ve seen some interesting things in the Valley, but yesterday the strangest thing happened….

The weatherman had predicted rain, snow, and wind for Thanksgiving week. Not one of those weather conditions bodes well for an old gent on a vintage Columbia bicycle. It would have been wiser, I suppose, to have stayed warm and dry by the woodstove and though a pile of thick, gray clouds marched along the southwest skyline, I thought I might be able to ride the Loop before the weatherman made good his prediction.

No such luck. As I rounded the corner on the Lower Loop road, the wind and rain struck. Then it was a struggle to sustain forward progress. To turn back would be to admit defeat, so I continued  chugging along with the consoling thought the return trip would be a “breeze.”

Sure enough Gladys got her second wind on the upper Loop road. We were spinning along quite handsomely, the spinnaker effect, as I call it, in overdrive. In no time at all we were rolling up on the Tualco Grange. It was then I saw a flash of black plummet from the top of the big maple tree that guards the southwest corner of Grange. A piece of shingle  lifting off the roof, I wondered? No, too black for that, blacker than a square of tar paper. There’s only one thing in the Valley that presents that color of black: a crow. “Ah,” I thought, “it’s swooped down to scavenge in the fallen leaves.” If so, it would be a swoop for naught: Gladys was sure to ting-a-ling the black forager quickly into flight.

The fallen object was sure enough a crow. But it didn’t take flight, nor would it ever again. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A crow falls out of a tree right before me and hits the ground dead. I continued on for a hundred feet or so, bewildered, I guess, by the weirdness of the event, bizarre enough I had to turn around and investigate.

The crow lay there, a sorry black heap among the fallen leaves. Its right wing was splayed out as if it were an arm in the air requesting permission to ask a question. Left wing folded against its flank. The crow’s beak, stout as a stick, was mud-covered at its tip—some recent probing obviously. Eye closed in death. My thought was it had died in the top of the tree, stuck there, and a gust of wind brought it down just as I was approaching. I lifted the splayed wing and the crow’s head lolled about; rigor hadn’t yet set in; time of death…just now, before my eyes?

By this time I was rain-soaked; yet I gave the fallen bird a superficial necropsy. The chest feathers were matted; the deceased had most certainly sustained some kind of physical trauma recently, a chest wound of some sort, it appeared. The wound seemed to have healed, though, scarred over, and the muddy beak showed that in spite of its injury the crow had been foraging. My preliminary finding pointed to homicidal violence most likely perpetrated by duck hunters.

Crows abound in the Valley. Flocks of them. Not a visit goes by I don’t see them but to have one fall stone dead nearly at one’s feet is very strange indeed.  As I continued on down the road, swept along by the wind, I couldn’t help think of John Ciardi’s poem “About Crows”:

The old crow is getting slow;

The young crow is not.

Of what the the young crow does not know of

The old crow knows a lot.


At knowing things, the old crow is still

The young crow’s master.

What does the old crow not know?

How to go faster.


The young crow flies above, below, and rings

Around the old crow.

What does the fast, young crow not know?


And what else does the old crow know?  I guess when  it’s TIME to go.crow no more

Friday, November 16, 2012

An Old-Fashioned Promise of the Unspoken Kind…

A Nov DayToday Gladys and I were weaving our way through a light rain, about to negotiate the corner by Van Hulles. The whine of a commercial jetliner caught my attention, and I watched it cruise along just below the cloud cover, its tail fin scraping the under belly of the overcast. Soon I was lost in a cloud reverie, pondering the strange way today’s clouds resembled the small pouches similar to the ones gravity shapes beneath your eyes. Two sharp honks behind me shatter my cloud fixation. Some rude driver, I fumed, having to wait for the two old timers to round the bend, impatient to burst free and speed on down the road.

I round the corner and am jarred by two more honks. To my surprise a small white box truck slowly pulls alongside and I recognize the driver. She smiles, gestures ahead, turns into Bert Frohning’s driveway, and I know what’s going to happen next.

Last summer The Ripple posted about the dahlia plots out in the Valley and a certain fiery dahlia I coveted (“Lusting in the Valley…,” 8/27/2010). I memorized the row in which that variety grew. In October when the young Asian woman who gardens the patch was digging the tubers for storage, I happened by and asked if she’d share a tuber or two from the row. She kindly gave me a bucketful of tubers and this summer that burst of flame kindled in my dahlia patch. By way of thanks I gave her a bottle of Valley knotweed honey.

This summer another dahlia in her patch caught my attention, a spidery sunburst blossom of “dinner plate” size, a blaze of red ringed the perimeter, a globe of yellow exploded at the center. The next time I saw the little gardener, I asked her if we could do another exchange this fall. “You show me, “ she said. I pointed and she nodded her head. That was that until a month ago when I noticed the entire patch had been dug.  Ah, disappointment. “No dahlia this year,” I lamented.

Two weeks later out in the Valley I see the little white box truck parked by the flower patch and I ride up on the lady gardener. “I guess I’m too late for the dahlia tubers, then?” I ask.  She thinks for a moment and replies she has them all in storage but will bring some the next day. She is planting spring bulbs, tulips,  hundreds of them, thousands maybe. A half dozen bins of spring bulbs are perched on the tailgate (“two, three thousand dollar.” She nods toward the bins. thirty-five of them she’ll plant, she tells me).

That afternoon I dig two mounds of dahlias and separate some of the tubers I’ve promised her in exchange, and a little after ten the next day I drive out in the Valley. Sure enough there’s the little white truck and the little Asian lady hunkered down over a rill planting one tulip bulb after another. She looks up as I approach. When she sees the plastic bags I’m carrying, an embarrassed look crosses her face…my dahlias are in storage; she has forgotten them. “You be home tonight, five, six? I bring.” “Will you be here tomorrow?” I ask. She nods, “You come at ten.” I give her her tubers and a jar of Tualco Valley wildflower honey, this summer’s vintage, my gesture of thanks.

The next day I’m out in the Valley at ten. No little white truck. No little gardener. The tulip rills appear mounded over. Looks like the planting is completed. I return the day after and once more the patch is vacant. “Well, that’s that,” I tell myself. “I won’t see her again this year.” My efforts for a mutual exchange appear to have been for naught. But there’s just something about the young woman that makes me trust I’ll get my dahlias; she won’t…wouldn’t let me down, would she? Could she…? As the days passed, I checked the front porch every day thinking perhaps a bag of tubers would be on the doorstep. Nothing. After a while I stopped looking altogether.

The young woman steps out of the cab.“I have them now,” she smiles as Gladys and I roll to a stop behind the truck. She swings up the rolling door, reaches in, grabs a plastic bag and hands it to me. I look inside and a dozen plump tubers stare back. She has been carrying my dahlias with her all this time.

You know, in the scheme of earth shattering events, our little exchange wasn’t much; the larger schemes of things beyond our control we wisely let go—or should. What’s the use…let others tilt at windmills. Her dahlias for mine: there was no handshake, no contract signed in the presence of lawyers, no promises made. We are of different cultures, Va and I: she, Asian, me, Irish; yet it was a tacit agreement between us; across the cultural divide we shared a common value, one good turn for another. A favor for a favor.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Principled Science of Road Kill…

Darrell into heavy metalsWalking home from the Valley the other day on the shoulder by Swiss Hall I found a quarter. Tails, it was, as if I’d won the toss…someone’s portfolio twenty-five cents less…my gain, their loss. How it got there is anyone’s guess, rolled off the fiscal cliff, perhaps. In case you’re puzzling over the title of this post, I’d better explain.

One of The Ripple’s first posts entertained the idea of  road kill, not the dead skunk in the middle of the road/dead ‘possum variety (that’s “road pizza,” isn’t it?), but the numismatic kind: the gathering and collecting of lost coins. In that post (“Three Penny Walk,” 2/27/2010 ) I hinted I might treat the subject at a later date, and The Ripple always makes good on its promise. Here’s where you get your two-bits worth out of that quarter.

Years ago about town I would see an elderly gentleman groping the coin return cups in the local phone booths. He would move from one booth to the other fishing for any change a previous caller had forgotten to collect. These were pre-lottery days in Washington State and no doubt this was the old fellow’s pastime. (I’m sure by now he’s been summoned by The Last Calling or I’d see him in front of the lotto kiosks caught up in a scratching frenzy. Besides, in this age of cells and I-Phones, the telephone booth is an endangered species.) The old guy, I’m sure, knew the location of every phone booth in town and like the postman, went on his rounds daily.

When I finally escaped from the world of work, I vowed three things: first, I’d not take up golf; next, I would not purchase a metal detector and cruise abandoned parking lots or sites where public gatherings were recently held; and third, I’d not become the old coin-pilfering fellow’s successor.

But I have scooped up considerable “coin” over the years.You might say, in fact, my vigilance for dropped, misplaced, lost coins borders on compulsion. Monetary “Road Kill,” I call it. My obsession grew during my teaching years when I would spot small change in the school hallway from time to time. By the time I left the profession, I had gathered enough loose/lost change to fill a pint jar. A penny found is a penny earned: nickels, dimes, quarters…so much the better. ( The Ripple’s “lost coin” post cited the  fact if it takes you longer than six seconds to snatch up a downed penny, you’re making less than minimum wage.) My quest for displaced coins prompted a thoughtful Christmas gift from my mom a few years back: a Mason half gallon canning jar, the glass the color of that antique bluish-green. I fitted the jar with a ring and seal into which I sliced a coin slot. My Road Kill jar, I call it, and over the years in my attempt to fill the jar, not only have I become accustomed to scanning the ground for coins, but I believe I have taken this pursuit to such a level I can truthfully call it a “Science,” The Science of Road Kill,” and I’m willing to pass it along to The Ripple’s readers:

Likely places to find coins…parking lots, of course: the expanse of territory makes for prime hunting ground because of the traffic that uses them daily. Where there are vehicles, there are drivers who fish their car keys from their pockets or purses and in the process spill out loose change. Shoppers seek parking spots closest to the store and most coins will be lost in this area, roughly the top third of the lot: the farther from the store, the less the likelihood of finding downed change. There’s an exception, though, to the coins/proximity to store ratio: handicapped parking spaces;  I can’t recall finding coins in a handicapped spot because those parking spots experience much less traffic than the parking lot proper. Also, the smaller the parking lot, the less chance one will find coins. Note: park across the lot from where you wish to shop, especially in the mornings when the sun glints off the surface of  lost coins. Besides, striding through empty parking spots means extra exercise: no RK coinage, after all, will replace your health.

Gas stations. Until Prius, Smart Car, and electric vehicles are the rule, gas stations will be high traffic areas. Again, drivers fumbling for keys proliferate coin spillage. Gas station/convenience stores double your chances…two parking areas in one!

Vending machines. Many require change, so some is bound to slip through the fingers of the customer. Check the ground around the outdoor soft drink stations, especially in summer. Supermarket change stations. Because of the frequent exchange of cash, coins often end up on the floor in these aisles. Customers in a hurry scoop their change from the coin returns and disregard the occasional coin that slips to the floor. (An observation: it’s surprising how many people won’t bother to stoop and retrieve a lost coin.) Coin Star kiosks (not all the change dumped into the machine rattles through  its works; every so often a coin or two ricochets off the hopper). And not all the change makes it into the tip jar at Starbuck’s either.

Out and about. It’s surprising how many coins end up alongside the road. Years ago I visited a friend in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and spent a couple of nights in a motel in Coeur d’alene.  On an early morning walk, I found nearly a pocketful of change in the gutter along my route. Pennies, I suspect, some people just toss from their cars to rid themselves of  the weight. Discarded nickels, dimes, quarters, have me perplexed: would you discard your change  just to save the fabric of your jeans?

All sciences need an ethical balance, and this is true of the Science of Road Kill. Just what qualifies as “road kill?” My general definition is any coin that finds its way to the ground, floor, or in the case of my quarter, on the shoulder of the road and lies there cold. It is poor form to scoop up a rolling coin (unless it has escaped your grasp). Change in coin returns is Not the ground; the coins absentmindedly left in the return receptacle by the customer ahead of you, leave them for the clerk or deposit them (conspicuously, if possible) in the charity jar on the checkout counter. In the  pure Science of Road Kill you let the coins find you, not the other way around—certainly not by scouting every change receptacle in town. And if for some unknown reason you feel inclined to tack back and forth across parking lots with a metal wand in your hand—especially if you’re a man my age—please do it under cover of darkness. Now young Darrell, pictured above,  in this era of weak economy, gets a pass from The Ripple.

Then there’s the currency RK…you find it, too. What dollar denomination goes beyond the ethics of RK? A dollar bill, a fiver, a ten spot, a “Jackson?” Where do you draw the line? Years ago I found a twenty dollar bill in a bank parking lot. In those days, before twenties spent like fives as they do nowadays, a twenty to most people was a considerable sum of money.  Obviously, a bank customer had lost the bill.“The right thing to do,” I thought, “is turn the money in to the bank manager.” The manager thanked me, put the money in an envelope, wrote my name on it, and said if no one claimed the bill in a month, it was mine to keep. (I believe I ended up with the money.)  Half a dozen years ago I found another twenty dollar bill in a mall parking lot. A dozen or so businesses occupied the mall and trying to find which shopper might  have lost the bill seemed futile. “Legitimate RK,” I told myself as I pocketed the money; the bill, now buried under several layers of change, still nestles in the half gallon jar of RK. I have yet to find a bill larger than a twenty, so  I’ve not had to reexamine my RK ethics (excepting the $1,500 I found in the Valley April 1, April before last.)

Now say you’re a disciple of the Science of RK but a timid and self-conscious one. You’re in the checkout line. Your hypersensitive coin radar goes off. There’s a coin, a penny (not shiny, but drab), nearly trod upon by the customer checking out ahead of you. An abandoned coin…ON THE FLOOR and well within the ethical parameters of RK; however, there are three people behind you. If you stoop for the likes of a penny, all three, including the clerk about to wait on you, will see you bend and scoop up the coin. What will they see, you fear? That same old scrounger going from phone booth to phone booth fisting out change. Even though the author Annie Dillard said she’d hate to meet a man who wouldn’t stoop to pick up a penny, you feel their gaze on you, impressions whirling around in their heads. I have the answer—a Science of RK solution. As the two feet straddling your prize shuffle off, step forward, take your car keys from your pocket, and “accidentally” drop them next to the downed penny of your desire, and in one deft swoop retrieve keys and the coin simultaneously. Who, after all, hasn’t accidentally dropped his car keys? Instant empathy—and you are one penny richer!

I weighed my RK jar the other day and it tipped the scales at 16.4 pounds. The pile of change is now level with the neck of the bottle; add a few more coins and they’ll no longer drop through the slit in the lid. Back to the quarter I slipped into the RK  jar. It was one of the state quarters, those coins the U.S. Treasury designates “collectible” so Americans will save more money. Mine was a 2000 New Hampshire quarter, abused and abraded by vehicle tires, as most RK is. The New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” quarter may very well prove to be the most collectible of all the state quarters because of the geologic formation featured on the reverse of the coin. “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a  famous New Hampshire landmark on Profile Mountain, slid off the cliff May 3, 2003, and no facelift will be able to restore it.N.H. State quarter

At this point you may feel you’ve gotten too much for your two-bits, so I’ll wrap up my RK post with one last anecdote: this one tinged with a little irony. Three years ago a stray cat showed up on our neighbor’s porch and in keeping with her love of animals, she set out a bowl of milk and dish of cat food and that sealed the deal. The cat was jet black. “Midnight,” our neighbor named him. For a year Midnight was a regular on our properties…main courses on the neighbor’s porch, appetizers at our bird feeding station. One morning as I was leaving the driveway, I saw a black mound on the fog line in the northbound lane of SR 203 and decided to investigate. The mound was Midnight, of course, lying just three feet away from the safety of the shoulder, a whole new world to explore just one yard away. I thought I’d spare my neighbor the grisly sight—certain sure she would see the cat when she left her driveway—of what once was Midnight sadly now was road kill. I lifted the cat’s  mangled body from the pavement, carried it down the bank, and gently lofted his carcass into a thick covert of blackberries to his final resting place. Now here’s the irony: on my way up the bank I discovered a damp ten dollar bill lying  in the weeds—Road Kill.

Whoever said a black cat brings bad luck.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wind Walking…

The Valley after cornIf there’s one thing Gladys hates, it’s wind. Even in the slightest breeze she balks, has trouble tracking straight, does her best to come to a halt and leave me stranded. On the days a fall wind slices across the Valley, Gladys is best left behind in the garage. I’ve left her there today and am now on foot leaning into the gusts. I’ve switched my ball cap backwards so it won’t kite off my head and sail out into a berry or cornfield. A school bus heads my way and before it passes, I’m tempted to spin my hat bill forward so I won’t be mistaken for some truant high school kid though there’s hardly any danger of that happening.

As I try to keep my hat from parting company with my head, I’m reminded of Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers and a passage in which the narrator discusses the indignity of a gust of wind separating a man from his headgear:

There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be too precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Certainly a man playing tag with a windblown hat—or a windblown anything for that matter—is cause for great hilarity to anyone looking on.

My age demographic is of special interest to the healthcare industry. At least once a month our healthcare group mails a pamphlet containing tips on things to do to keep one healthy and wise (note: I’ve omitted  “wealthy” from the familiar phrase; “wealthy” pertains only to the healthcare industry, not those requiring its service—especially once the service has been rendered). One of these glossies arrived just the other day encouraging those of my “demographic” to keep the ol’ body in motion—“exercise,” I believe  is what they called it. While touting exercise as beneficial to one’s physical health, our provider suggested a departure from the “fitness club” routine, the indoor churning away on a treadmill, inhaling the fumes of perspiration from the treaders to the left and right, a goulash of others'  bodily exhausts fouling the nostrils. The title of the piece, “Cold Weather Workouts,” proclaims: “Your body likes a change of pace; you have to increase your exercise pace to stay warm outside in cold weather; your mind could use some fun.” Take it outdoors,  the pamphlet suggests,  the fall winds may howl, the rains may pour in earnest, the chilly air pinch the nostrils…. Outdoor exposure not only offers a new view, a changing landscape to stimulate the senses (so different from the grip bars of an exercise torture machine… ): the sounds, smells, sights the Valley offers…the tread of feet on pavement and gravel.

So here I am, leaning into the Valley breeze (it’s exercise enough just to keep my hat on my head). Neal Peart in his memoir Ghost Rider recalled a moment from his youth when his mother, tired of her kids being underfoot, told him: “Son, go outside and blow some of the stink off you!” This day of wind I’m trying to do the same thing; however, sharing the Valley as I do with dairy cows, there’s the chance I might fail in this attempt, substitute one form of stink for another. But the Valley gulls are aloft, spinning in the currents, mewling with contentment, adrift on the wind. Grasses and trees bend in the wind. My footsteps patter the pavement, crunch the gravel. No grunting or groaning of flesh and muscle to my right, no clatter, clank or whirr of machinery to the left. I’m on my own in the Valley. I hear only what the wind wants me to hear. No walls hem me in, only Valley fields. No ceiling, just the clouds scudding overhead, both of us bound in fealty to the wind. Wind walking….

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Walls Do not a Prison Make, Nor Iron Bars a Cage…

In lockup“The Prisoner of Chillon,”  George Gordon Lord Byron

Tell that to a pumpkin, squash, gourd,  shock of corn, or apple residing at Kurt’s Vegetable Stand these days. Yes, this fall Kurt’s  produce stand looks like a minimum security prison, fruit and vegetables incarcerated like felons. Felonious vegetables? A pumpkin that grew lopsided? A squash that suffered a moral lapse and committed a little cross-pollination with the pumpkin next door? Or a  trespassing gourd, perhaps, snaking its way into the corn patch, the corn filing a formal complaint? I guess I’ll have to read the police reports for the particulars.

This time of the year it’s switch out the summer begonia pots in the entryway for  fall chrysanthemums. Add A few corn stalks from the garden. Tangle in a few strands of faux leaves from Ben Franklin’s crafts department. Select a nice garden pumpkin, a squash or two—different colors and varieties for contrast. Round off the display with a few strange and exotic gourds. And for the gourds I always head for Kurt’s stand.

Gourd season pretty much marks the tail end of  local produce sales. As Halloween approaches and folks have rounded up their pumpkins, Kurt’s customers dwindle and there’s no need for the staff to man the scales, take the money, return the change. All the years I’ve sought gourds at Kurt’s, I’ve been able to select a variety from a vegetable bin right out there in the open. Usually there’s nobody around to take my cash, so I slip a fiver in the iron pipe Kurt has customized for payment by the honor system. I always try to leave more than I think my produce is worth just as I do when I pay Kurt’s employees. “Keep the change,” I say. Or I’ll  pay a couple dollars more for whatever produce (usually garlic or dill) I select. It’s not that I’m particularly generous; when I hand over the cash at Freddies or Safeway, I pay my bill and not one penny more. Kurt’s Vegetable Stand is a Valley institution in my opinion and there’s nothing like being able to select produce from the Valley, fresh, usually picked that morning. Anyone who knows Kurt understands  he and his staff work very hard for their money, and it’s worth it to me to pay a little extra just to keep an institution that provides a Valley service up and running. “You work hard for your money,” I tell them when I part with a little extra cash.

The last couple of weeks it seems every time I drove by, Kurt’s was abandoned, the customer separated by lock and key and strong wire.  As usual when our fall display went up, I made a trip to Kurt’s for our gourd complements. The gourds were there, an entire bin of them, held prisoner along with their squash and pumpkin cousins. I waited a while, looked around for the prison guards, but the only sign of life was a motion sensor spotlight that winked on and off whenever I shifted position. I returned home ten minutes later empty handed and a little glum. We finished out the display with a few winter squash in various stages of maturity from our own garden.seasonal display

On the way home from town the very next day I passed the vegetable stand. Parked in the driveway was Kurt’s Valley brown Ford Taurus (with its distinct red side mirror, passenger side). The wire webbed entry gate, I noticed, was swung wide open. “Wonder what Kurt has to say about all the new security?” I thought, quickly unloaded the groceries and headed back down to hear his side of the story.

No Kurt when I returned, but the stand was open—or so the sign read; however, not a soul in sight, except the gourds, pumpkins, and squash and they looked nervous. Just as I was about to take my leave, Rosario, Kurt’s second in command, appeared from the jumble of the place. I greeted her and gestured to the wire enclosure. “You no like?” she asked. I shook my head. Rosario and the English Language are still becoming acquainted, so I’ll pass along what I gleaned from our conversation. The sum of the situation is this: the cash receipts lately don’t seem to match the inventory leaving the stand. More the issue: after years—decades, even—it seems the honor system has been dishonored and is honored no longer at Kurt’s. Nightly Rosario had to haul the produce into the stand’s office which had a locked door. Locking up the vegetables before closing the stand every day was a tiresome inconvenience. Besides the little office couldn’t accommodate all the inventory. In her halting English Rosario lamented that certain caches of vegetables just seemed to disappear. Some of her beautiful hanging baskets vanished, too. Last Christmas, she told me, a large wreath went missing—all unpaid for. Thus the wire citadel now surrounding the stand.secured

Doing business with the little fortress was just an inconvenience for me, but the stand is Rosario’s livelihood, and to think that there are thieves taking advantage of Kurt’s time honored honor system is downright disheartening. Thievery itself is bad enough because of the theft, but when it affects the honest customers who have patronized Kurt’s stand for years and makes doing business there an inconvenience, the thieves have won a double victory. And there’s the uneasiness of doing business with a merchant whose trust has been somehow compromised; you yourself feel under suspicion when you’re on the premises. Yet again the honest are victimized. 

Whenever I pass by the hodge-podge that is Kurt’s Vegetable Stand these days, it’s with a tinge of sadness. Sadness because of change. Sadness because with a little bit of wire fencing, the Valley seems to have shifted a bit. Sadness because just one more thing has been locked up, lost its freedom. And mild irritation that no one has yet thought to post visiting hours. wired in