Monday, February 19, 2018

Real Mexico

My Pez were determined a security risk at O’Hare airport.  At 6:30 a.m. I watched as my backpack rolled along a conveyor belt only to stop, shift mechanically behind a Plexiglass divider, and stay there until a real human being brought it to a table where I, putting my belt on, stuffing things in my pockets, was told to stand.  I tried to be nice.

“You have a number of items with a hollow cavity that look to be stuffed with another material.”

I wondered what I had that fit that description.  Whatever it was sounded sinister.  I felt guilty right away.
“I know I have a tube of Blistex in there.  Maybe some lens cleaning solution.  But I think it’s under the amount of fluid allowed.”

The TSA guy opened the straps to my carry on, a small black Duluth pack.
“It’s these,” he said, holding up a big zip lock bag stuffed with plastic heads on stand up plastic shafts.  I’d packed about 50 to give to kids in the eye clinic.

“They’re Pez,” I said.
He unzipped the bag and pulled out a yellow Minion with one eye, turning it over as if it were some kind of radioactive substance.

“It’s Pez.  A toy. ”
Who doesn’t know Pez?

“What’s inside it?”
“May I?”

I reached for the Pez.  He hesitated but handed it to me.  I slid open the interlocking plastic deal, revealing a row of a dozen lemon flavored sugar tablets.
“Candy.  They’re filled with candy, because they’re Pez.”

Another TSA staffer, looser, more candid, walked over and picked up the bag.
“Wow man, you got them all.  You got the Disney characters, Star Wars, Power Rangers.  Nice job.”

His co-worker, the unsmiling Pez illiterate, looked at him blankly, then back at me.  The hip TSA agent reassured his fellow staff member.
“They’re Pez man.  It’s cool.  He’s good.”

I handed him back the one eyed Minion.  He put it carefully into the zip lock, closed it, placed the bag into my back pack, looked at me with more than a tinge of doubt, and waved me on without words.
“Just get me out of here,” I thought.

The “here” I was referring to in “get me out of here” was my country.  I was ready to leave.   The political news was driving me out.  Over the past year I had had it with the rancor, the accusations, the lying, and rude discourse let alone the damage being done to my county’s image around the world.  I needed a break.
The plane landed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in the early afternoon and by evening we, 20 some volunteers  paying their own way to staff an eye clinic and dispense used eye glasses, arrived in a town of 16,000 towards the middle of the Mexican state of Nayarit.  Compostela, up in the hills and away from the coast , has little or no tourism, is not widely known, and because of that is unlike the country most who visit Mexico experience.  They are not intent on selling you espresso coffee, jewelry, vegetarian food, tattoos, or trinkets like they do on Mexico’s beaches.  In Compostela they’re busy growing sorghum and mangos, tobacco and corn, beans, and raising horses and cows, along with children.

We checked into an old hotel on the square and were taken to our clinic site, a building normally used as a community health center for diabetics on the edge of town.  It was small but clean.  We had to quickly figure out how to set up.  We decided registration needed to be done outside.  Not ideal, but necessary.  Even with that space would be tight.  There would still be little room for patients waiting at different points in the clinic once they entered.  The next day our hosts would move a canopy near the entrance to provide shade to those forced to wait outside.
We set up our stations: registration, nurse, visual acuity, auto refractor, eye doctors (4), and finally dispensing where people receive glasses if needed.  We unpacked and spread out our catalogue of 7,000 pairs of used eye glasses from Lion’s Club warehouses in California and Illinois, and kind people we know who save them for us.  By 8:00 p.m. we were more or less ready for Sunday, the first day of a four day clinic.  Super Bowl Sunday by the way. 

That first day of travel and set up is always a long one.
My wife and I were on the third floor of the small hotel.  Our room was directly across from the town’s central plaza and bell tower of its largest Catholic Church, San Santiago Apostal, known locally as the Temple of the Lord of Mercy.  Church bells went off in a big way at 5:30 a.m. the next morning.  It was still dark.  I jumped out of bed thinking something was about to happen.  It was.  Sunday in Mexico had begun.

I looked out the window and dimly saw the source of the calamity, it was that old church.  To say its old is understatement.  It was designed by the Spanish in 1540 and built by the hands of local Mexicans.  It remains a vital working parish 478 years later.  People of all ages cross themselves when they pass by.

We arrived at the clinic about 7:30, hoping to open the doors by 8:00.  We’re always hopeful.  Truth is it took us longer to get going, and then we waited for the mayor to come and cut a ribbon.  The mayor of Compostela is a young woman, rare in Mexican politics, but a very good sign.  She was late.  People were there when we arrived, holding little squares of paper, their pre-enrollment ticket for glasses on Sunday.  Our hosts, the local Rotary club, were very well organized.

They had been with us every step of the way.  They were at their airport ready to run interference to get our glasses and equipment through customs, at the coach bus which they hired offering beer, soda and homemade tacos on the ride up into the mountains, at the hotel helping us register and get to our rooms, at the clinic with sandwiches helping us set up that evening.
When I asked how many volunteers would be available to help us the first day of clinic my rotary contact rattled off names, counting on his fingers, and said “Eleven.”  More showed up.  They nearly equaled us I Care volunteers from the states.  It was impressive.

Clinic always starts slowly.  We find out where the slow spots are, where we need more help, where those we’re helping get out of sequence.  But soon the people of Compostela, who had signed up for the free eye clinic weeks ago, made it to the final step and we were giving them glasses. The planning and preparation, the travel, the set up, all come down to that.  People who lack eye care get a good exam and glasses if they need them.  Volunteers pick a pair of glasses for them, sometimes more, from the stock we assembled, wrap them in their intake form, and pass them to the fitters, of which I am one, to call their name.
I make sure to do a few things first each time a new patient sits down in front of me.  I repeat their first name, look them in the eye, say Buenos dias (good day), Buenos tardes (good afternoon), or sometime Buenos noches (good evening) if we run late.  I shake their hand.  I say como esta (how are you) again using their first name.  They usually smile and ask me how I’m doing back. Then we go.

People who hear me speak Spanish in the clinic think I know the language well.  I don’t.  Truth is I’ve been speaking Spanish about eyes and glasses for four days at least in 25 of the last 30 years.  I’ve  lost count.  My first mission was in 1988.  I missed some years when the kids were little, but not many.
As a result, I have a pretty polished rap about bifocals.  I show them the line, explain that under the line is the portion of the lens for viewing things close up, and over the line for distance.  I put their glasses on them and ask them first to look away in the distance.  I give them a newspaper to look at close up.  If they don’t work we try something else.

If they can see adequately, and you can almost tell by the look on their face, I ask them if the glasses are comfortable, loose or tight, then adjust them to fit.  I caution them about the vulnerability of plastic lenses and tell them to clean them with soap and water and dry them with a soft cloth so as to prevent scratches.  If they have an eye injury or one eye that doesn’t function I tell them
“Esta es la razon por la cual Dios  le dio a la gente dos ojos.  (This is why God gave people two eyes.)”

I joke around, try to make the experience pleasant for them, and in the end shake their hand again, telling them “Listo!”  (we’re done or you’re ready) and wishing them good luck with the glasses.  Get me away from an eye clinic, and the vocabulary contained in that short exchange, and my Spanish goes downhill quickly.  I learned Spanish in the streets while traveling, hitchhiking mostly, through Mexico, Central America, and part of South America in the 70’s.  They say you learn what you need to get by that way.  And that amount of Spanish allows me to get by in the eye clinic fairly well.
The real story of these clinics is the people we serve and the local people who help us provide that service.  Let’s start with the latter.  They were Rotary Club members, business owners, Mexicans with means.  Who else has the capacity to fund and carry out a community project like this?  One of the main organizers was a local family practice doctor, a dynamic young woman who took charge of the front door, got us whatever we needed, and stayed from the time the first patient came through the door till the last one left.

Another was a local businessman who owned gas stations and several other businesses.  His whole family worked with us, including his daughter who spoke excellent English and interpreted for those who needed language help.  So much help from the citizens of Compostela.  They worked with us Sunday and Monday, which was a holiday, and turned us over to the local staff of DIF, the Mexican national social service agency, when they had to go back to their jobs Tuesday and Wednesday.  I’ve found it rare for two such different organizations to cooperate so well.  Despite the Rotary club members saying they would not be able to help the last two days many were there much of the time.  All the organizers were especially kind to the people served by the clinic.  It appeared to be a real labor of love for them.
As it was for us from the US.  That’s why we do this, our motivation for going in the first place.  For me it’s the joy of meeting those people.  I probably called the name, shook the hand, and said “good luck with your glasses” to 500+ people.  Here’s a few of them.

An 80 year old painter who came straight from work.  He was tanned and wrinkled but his forearms and his handshake were just as strong as mine.  He had paint on his hands.  He was wiry and fit and had bright eyes.  Not bad vision.  Just a little deficit seeing far away but seriously hindered for near vision.  I asked him one of the standards questions.
“Tiene lentes antes?”  (Had glasses before?)

“Nunca.”  (Never.)
I gave him a pair of sturdy bifocals.  When I asked him to look far away, he looked out the window and nodded.  When I put a newspaper in front of him he broke into a big smile.

“Muy claro.”  (Very clear.)
He gave me the three part handshake that is so popular with Mexicans and hipsters alike.  The standard handshake, the thumb grab, followed again by the standard handshake.  I gave him some sunglasses that went over the bifocals to keep “both the sun and the paint out of his eyes.”  He laughed. 

I quietly gave a 50 year old deaf woman her first pair of glasses, silently translating my glasses rap to crude hand signals.  She needed a lot of correction for distance.  Her mouth silently formed an O and she smiled as she looked out the window, then smiled at me.  She asked for her daughter to come over and speak to me, signing to her.  The daughter told me that her mother wished me blessings from God and safe travels home.
I fitted a saddle maker, an electrician, lots of taxi drivers and truck drivers (thank god), farmers, cooks, housewives, lots of kids (the Pez only lasted two days), in short a small slice of the entire community.  One woman who had a taco cart in the square, when I told her how much I liked Compostela, told me “Compostela es el capital del mundo. “ (Compostela is the capital of the world.)

A night later while walking through the square I heard that same sentence yelled across the way.  Here came that same woman, proudly wearing her glasses, smiling and thanking me again.  So genuine. 
I gave a nine year old girl her first pair of glasses, (along with a Pez) for serious myopia or near sightedness, and an almost equal prescription to her mother.  I explained to them that they would both most likely need to wear glasses the rest of their lives, and to have regular eye exams if possible.  And then I gave them one of my good lines. 

“Para ti, con lentes el mundo es mas grande.” (For you, the world is much bigger with glasses.)
Old people, some confused, were always it seemed accompanied by caring family members and treated kindly.  Families waited for each other, children were well behaved, and parents were tolerant.  The U.S. volunteers were probably more stressed than the Mexicans, although some of them spent over two hours in the clinic and travelled hours to get there from their villages.

They gave out 500 tickets a day, each of the four days.  We haven’t served 2,000 people in an I Care clinic since the old days.  We didn’t even know we could anymore.  And yes our feet hurt, and our backs, and our brains were worn out from thinking of prescriptions and translating English to Spanish in our heads, but when it was over we felt good.  We accomplished something.  We got close as a group, and the group was international.
The doctor’s sister cooked us a huge pot of posole for dinner Tuesday night.  They brought it to the clinic after the last patient was served.  Posole is hominy soup.  Hominy is corn kernels with the shell removed and boiled till it puffs up.  This posole had vegetables, mushrooms, and just a little bit of chicken.  They served it with thick handmade tortillas and two homemade hot sauces, a mild green one and a red one they made a point of warning us about, a thick oily paste made with chile de arbol.   I had two teaspoons of the red in both bowls of soup.  Best hot sauce I’ve had in a long time.  We all ate together on plastic banquet tables, Mexican and American volunteers elbow to elbow, dog tired, and talked about how we could do better in the clinic the next day.

This being Mexico, they threw us a big party at the end of the last day, a dress up deal with certificates of appreciation, bottles of tequila, multiple speeches, more tequila, much talk of hearts and love and home, and hugs.  Lots of hugs and tearful goodbyes.  It was heartfelt.  
As my wife and I were getting ready for the party I had a whiskey and thought of a speech I would give if the opportunity arose.  All of us were careful to avoid talking politics.  I imagined it as the elephant in the room, and searched for a way to broach the subject tactfully.  At the party I decided not to talk, because the evening went long and everyone was tired.  Besides that I write better than I talk.  This is what I wanted to say. 

“In the United States we have problems.  Political problems.  We don’t know where we are headed as a country.  Many of us are alarmed, even ashamed.  As a country we are as divided as we have ever been.  The future is uncertain.  Many of us are working hard to keep our country on the side of justice and fairness.  But we are struggling.  
Whatever the outcome of that political struggle, in our upcoming elections, in our path going forward, I want to assure you of something.  No politician, no political party, no policy, no law, and certainly no wall will ever separate the people of the United States from its neighbors.  Both you and I are more than our governments.  The people of the United States of America and Mexico share values and ideals that cannot be taken away.  You are in our hearts, and nothing can take you from us.”

Mexicans love the stuff about hearts.  When you hear the word “corazon” look for tears to follow.  That speech might have resonated.  We’ll never know.  I think it would have had punch because it is true.  The people of the United States and Mexico share so much as people: a sense of community, a belief in family, and helping others.  You can’t make that make that stuff up, and you certainly can’t take it away.

Friday, February 2, 2018

February Sucks

Good thing February is short.  It’s my least favorite month.  There is the brief respite of Valentine’s Day, if you have a valentine.  If you don’t, February is even worse.  Winter, which can be a welcome break even here in the Midwest, has been experienced.  Christmas and New Year’s are over.  Snow has come and gone.  We’ve put up lights and trees and taken them down.  The parties are over.  We’re ready to move on to spring, which begins in March.  But there is February to live through, and February sucks.

I rode the Rock Island line to and from Joliet to LaSalle Street station, going into the city one day and returning the next. The days were carbon copies of each other.  Gray.  Cloudy.  Drab.  The snow had melted and revealed dead grass and trash under it.  No sign of life.  We’re ready for something to happen.  Anything actually.  We need a new view.  Reset the picture please.

My Christmas tree is lying in the yard, green but dead all the same.  It serves as a roosting place for birds waiting for the feeder.  I’ve fed more seed this winter than I ever remember.  The finches are killing the thistle seed and the Cardinals drain the black oil sunflower seeds.  Woodpeckers eat a cake of suet a week.  Maybe I’ve paid more attention this winter, and refilled the feeders more faithfully.  Where would they be without me?  In somebody else’s yard I’m sure.

There is art that appears in my head which I can’t shake.  When recurring tunes stick in our minds we call them ear worms.  What do we call images we keep seeing?  If we’re lucky the images are beautiful. 

Not all the art that visits my head is famous.  I think often of Claude Monet’s haystacks.  I’ve seen them in the Chicago Art Institute many times, making a point of visiting them each time I go through the doors.  Claude Monet made the ordinary gorgeous and these haystacks are no different.  Being an old haymaker myself I can relate.  A field, the sky, a haystack.  Sometimes two.  How can that be special you ask?  Claude has a talent for capturing beauty.  He paints them at different times of the day, through all the seasons.  Six of Monet’s many haystack paintings, held in museums around the world, are in Chicago.  They are displayed across their own wall in the Impressionists gallery.  Frame after frame of the same haystacks.

What changes you ask?  The light mostly.  The color of the sky.  The clouds.  The shadows they cast.  The winter haystack is softened with a coat of snow.  The spring haystack is spiked with green.  Once I stood across the room, when I can’t remember, to pick a favorite.   I scan them all and go closer to find the title of the winner.  Its Sunset, Snow Effect.  Soft with smooth lines, the sun glows orange off the clouds and the snow.  It’s pleasing and calm.

My least favorite?  I go back to look from across the room.  One stands out. Darker than the rest, less reflective light.  Solemn somehow.  I walk up once again to read the title.  Thaw, Sunset. 

I wish old Claude was alive, or I had the time and energy to research when those painting were done.  I’d bet my best animal skull (I have several in the shack) he painted that in February.  It’s what February looks like.  Not even a master like Claude Monet can make it better.

And so I’m leaving the country.  I’m going to see what February looks like further south.  I won’t be gone the whole month, but I won’t stay till the end either.  At the end of February I take off again.  Retirement offers opportunity, and I’m taking it.  I’ll talk to you again when I get back.

Look on the bright side.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Elevator Speech

I need to do some serious work on my elevator speech for Dave in the Shack, namely writing one.  The realization that I have no coherent description of what I’m doing here came about this way.

I was at a fundraiser for a local candidate and was introduced to one of the women that urged the candidate to run.  My friend introduced me as “a writer.  Dave writes a blog.  He’s going to write about (the aspiring and emerging politician.)”
“Oh really?  What’s the name of your blog?”

Apparently sometimes the name of the blog gives one a clue as to what it’s about.  Food blogs, political blogs, travel blogs, all descriptively and discreetly named.
Dave in the Shack.”

“So what do you write about?”

“Whatever I want.”
She looked puzzled.

“Fiction or non-fiction?”

“Well it’s typically based on things that happen. But I take license.  And sometimes I write straight fiction.  Creative non-fiction might describe it.”
Not a single spark of understanding appeared on her face.

“Do you write about politics?”
“From time to time.  I spent some time in Springfield directly working to increase funding for kids and families.  So I’ve been involved in the process.  But I write about a lot of other things.”

She looked at me blankly.
“Yeah.  Well I’ll have to check it out.”

My guess is she hasn’t.  Nothing I said would have made her want to.  My elevator speech, a succinct one minute summary, never materialized.
So what is Dave in the Shack about?  Good question.

It’s written in the first person and that person is me.  The opinions expressed in Dave in the Shack are mine.  I think you all know that.  A friend once asked if I have a long list of things I want to write about and check them off one by one.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I generally write about moments I recently live which seem meaningful.  I try to explain them to you, hoping they may also be meaningful to you. I admit that once in a while I do things deliberately so I can write about the experience.  I describe people I meet, conversations that happen, things I end up thinking about.  Still pretty non specific isn’t it?  Let me try again.

I started this blog while I was the director of a youth service/child welfare agency.  At that time it was named YSB update.  I had a pretty clear purpose then.  I wanted to write in a way that would create empathy and understanding, perhaps support, for the children we served and their parents.  Along the way I wanted to illustrate how hard my staff worked, what good members of my volunteer board did to help our cause, how much public policy on the state and federal level affected people in the communities we served.  I tried not to swerve too far out of that lane, although I admit I got personal at times.
When I retired I began writing Dave in the Shack.  It was liberating.  I was not longer the spokesperson for an organization, I was a guy writing from a shack about anything he wanted.  On the blog page I say “writing from a small place in a changing world.”  I suppose I try to note change, convey the struggles of working to keep up with a flood of news and information, in a world which we know so much more about but understand less.  But there’s more to it than that.

Although I’m retired and work, for money that is, barely at all (as an election judge I am paid each time there is a local election.)  I’m still doing things.  I volunteer, directly and as a board member, attend church, live in a community.  I have time now to think about what’s going on around me and observe life and its interactions in, sometimes in detail.  It’s a good thing to do.  I recommend it.
And as I live that life I encounter people, events, experiences, that are so touching, or important, I think they should be recorded and shared.  Not forgotten.  Things that can be used to inform others, you, my readers.

And so that is mostly what I write about.  Noteworthy aspects of everyday life.
I remember overhearing staff in the kitchen at YSB in the 90’s talking about TV shows.  I rarely watched TV then, or since.  They were talking about “Seinfeld” which I had heard of but never seen.  Naively I asked a question

“What’s that show about?”

They all started laughing.  Apparently, there had been an episode that revolved around just  that.  One of them managed to say

and then they laughed again.  “Seinfeld” was a comedy that centered around  the everyday lives of a group of people living in New York apartments.  The episodes could be and were, about seemingly everything and in turn nothing in particular. 
I hesitate to say Dave in the Shack is about nothing.  But then again, it can be about anything.  “Seinfeld” was at least always funny.  This blog has been about music, food, social work, making peanut brittle, road trips, politics, farm life, animals, whiskey, you name it.  Sometimes it makes readers laugh and sometimes cry.

Sometimes I write a blog and from your comments, I find my readers react to something else.  Last week I wrote about a tender moment between siblings.  I was cooking eggs to order in the local homeless shelter and in the course of interacting with two kids, who could well have woken up to their first morning in a public shelter, one of those moments happened.  As I talked to them, coaxing an egg order from them, the younger, a little girl with shy eyes, pulled on her brother’s sleeve, cupped her small hand around his ear, whispered into it, and settling back to watch me.  Her brother reluctantly but dutifully did her talking for her, asking me if his little sister could have orange juice. 
It reminded me of the orphan in Oliver Twist who asked for more porridge.  It was the look in her eyes, her quiet but determined way of getting what she wanted under tough circumstances., that touched me.  I wanted to capture that moment and share it with you, with as many people as possible.

Instead, you thought I was the hero.  The comments praised me for being there in the first place and helping  the homeless people.  I was just the cook.  It wasn’t supposed to be about me, but them,  homeless people and their humanity.  But you can’t win them all. 
On the other hand, I asked for egg and orange juice donations and a guy reported that earlier this week he donated a gross of eggs (a dozen dozen) and a case of frozen OJ.  So in that sense, it worked just fine.

In conclusion I don’t know what Dave in the Shack is about.  Ernest Hemingway among others, and I find no one gives more advice to writers than writers, said this:
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

I try to do that in a way.  I would change it though to read
“Write hard and clear about what’s true.”

It’s therapeutic to write about what hurts, but readers don’t always share that pain.  However, I think you have a great appreciation for what’s true.  Some things, written well, hit home and resonate.  That’s what I try to write.  Maybe you know what I’m doing better than me.  Let me know if you can.  Thanks for reading all the way to the end.

P.S. - If you receive a link to Dave in the Shack via e mail you may be getting it from a new e mail address.  My only e mail contact is now  You may want to put it in your address book.  And as always, to comment on a blog received via e mail, just go to the e mail message and hit reply.  I’ll get it every time.   

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Eggs and Orange Juice

I cooked breakfast at the homeless shelter again this morning.  I’m happy to report there were a lot of eggs in the fridge.  33 people woke up in the shelter, but as you might guess, not everyone wakes up hungry.  Most all want coffee, but some aren’t ready for food.  Some just want to be left alone. 

I arrived at 6:30, got organized, and by 6:45 was ready to start feeding people.  My friend Steve, the night guy who volunteers from 3:00 -7:00, found pork chops in the fridge, cut them up, seared them then baked them, and had them warming in the oven along with some leftover ham and potatoes.  He found some pre made rolls of biscuits and had them on a baking sheet in the oven on a timer.  On the kitchen work table were two flats of eggs, one not quite full.  I counted them.  44. 
I had two skillets hot on the stove, a bottle of oil, salt and pepper, and a spatula.  On the counter next to the stove I set up a bowl for cracking eggs into, a big bowl for the shells, and a half a glass of milk.  I quietly interrupted the early morning reverie of a guy hunched over his coffee cup in the semi dark.  I had the kitchen lights on but no one had turned on the overheads in the dining room.

“You ready for breakfast?”

He looked up like I startled him, hesitated, then said

“I’m cooking eggs.  How do you like ‘em?”
“Sunny side up.”

I cracked two eggs into the bowl, one in each hand, and poured a little oil in the skillet.  When I emptied the bowl into the skillet, the whites puffed up and popped a little.  I turned the heat down and seasoned them with salt and black pepper.
“You want some porch chop with these eggs?”

Sunny side eggs don’t take long.  I had a circle of egg whites with two yellow suns slid onto a square white plastic plate in short order.  I opened the oven door and spooned on three or four hunks of pork next to them.  The timer had just gone off for the biscuits so I took them out and slid them into a big bowl, covered it with a plate.  They looked a little flat.  I don’t think that tube dough is ever as good as the stuff you mix up yourself.

“Toast or biscuits?”

I had put four slices of whole wheat in the toaster.  I pushed the lever down on two and rummaged around in the fridge for butter.  Nothing but margarine.  I brought it out with a jar of red raspberry jelly.
“Here you go.”

I slid him the plate. 

“Why don’t you turn the lights on out there?”
He did.  More people began to show up. 

The next guy wanted a plate just like the first guy had.  A woman came up to the counter and wanted her eggs scrambled.  I cracked them, two at a time, into the bowl.  As I added milk and began to beat them with a fork I looked at her, tall and thin, looked at all the eggs I had, and added one more.  She wanted the pork chop too.  When I asked her if she preferred biscuits or toast she said.
“Oh my.  You have hot biscuits here?”

She said that in up talk fashion, her voice ending on a high note.
“Yes I do ma’am.  Just like downtown.”

“Then yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Give me the biscuits please.”
Soon a line formed and that process repeated itself over and over.  For the record the most popular egg order is over easy.  But I heard a new one.  A young guy in a hockey jersey ordered his like this:

“Over.  Kill the yolks.”
I took that to mean over hard.  I messed up his yolks with my fork in the skillet.

Two kids came out before their Dad and got a bowl of cold cereal each.  They were quiet.  Could have been their first morning in the shelter.  I saw them alone, went out to where they were sitting. and asked them if they would also like some eggs.  The girl looked at her big brother, who nodded at her, and she responded quietly.

I addressed the brother.
“How about you?”

“How do you like them?”

I pointed at the girl.  She looked at her brother.  They both looked at me dumbly.  Finally the brother answered tentatively.

“Eggs don’t come regular.  All ways are equal.  You like them scrambled?”
They looked at each other again.  Again the brother answered.

“So you want the whites around the yolks.”

“And how do you like those yolks?  Runny?  Sorta runny?  Not runny at all?”

The brother answered for himself.
“Sorta runny.”

I pointed to the girl.  She looked at her brother, then me.
“Sorta runny.”

“Sounds like you both want your eggs over easy.  Try to remember that next time someone asks you.  That is, if you like the eggs I bring you.  I have biscuits or toast.  Which will it be?”
The boy opted for biscuits.  His little sister asked for toast.  I was about to walk back to the kitchen when the girl began tugging on her brother’s shirt.  A little annoyed, he bent towards her.  She cupped her hand around his ear and whispered something.  He looked a little disgusted, then looked up at me with a bored face.  Embarrassed I think.

“Do you have any orange juice?”
“Sorry.  Not today.  Lemonade or milk.”

He looked at his sister.  She shook her head.
“OK.  Thanks anyway.”

Their Dad came out and after conferring with his kids ordered his eggs over easy too.  I fixed three plates, kept everything warm, and served them all at once.  Dad was reading the want ads in the local paper.  Later I looked out and the little girl had her toast all cut down the middle and carefully slathered with raspberry jelly.  They were all talking together, the three of them. 
The little girl came up with their plates when they were finished, putting them in the plastic bin under the counter. 

“How did you like those eggs?”

“OK. That means you, your brother, and your Dad all like your eggs over easy.  Remember that.”
“Over easy,” she said, as if she was practicing.

And thus I served 43 eggs to a bunch of people on Monday morning, January 15, 2018 in Ottawa, Illinois at the PADS shelter.  May they all have homes, and their own eggs, very soon.
For all of you who have brought eggs to the shelter, and it appears there are many, thank you.  Keep them coming.  They make for good mornings.  Don’t forget the orange juice

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts on Fuel and this blog

Soon after I began heating my shack with a small stove my view of wood, and in turn fuel, changed.   Experience alters how we think. 

We all know wood is fuel, contains BTU’s, and can get you through a cold winter day. But it rarely does.  We burn wood in campfires, bonfires, occasionally fireplaces.  We feel its heat from time to time but it’s a novelty, a show.  Wood serves us as building material, furniture, but rarely as a source of heat.

The fuel that sustains most of us through a Northern winter, keeps the pipes from freezing, allows our potted plants stay alive, heats the water, and cooks our food is invisible.  In my house its natural gas, piped in from who knows where, paid for monthly and automatically online.  It combines with oxygen very efficiently in a burner the size of a suitcase in the basement.  The exhaust escapes from a small plastic tube out my basement wall.  I do nothing but change the furnace filters.

Few people have big wood-burning furnaces in the basement, or wood burning stoves upstairs big enough to distribute heat throughout their homes.  For some its electricity, which might be sustainably generated by solar panels, a windmill, or something equally green but likely not.  Instead it too is likely produced by burning up some irreplaceable fossil fuel to make people warm and comfortable.  And we rarely think about it.  We just turn the thermostat up.

Like most things done small, burning wood in a tiny stove to heat a little building puts heat on an observable and easily grasped scale.  My Sardine stove, the smallest model made by Navigator Stove Works (NVA) on Orcas Island off the northwest corner of Washington State, is made mostly for sailboat cabins.  Turns out it works equally well in tiny houses.

The inside dimensions of the shack are 11’ x 11’.  I worried that if I installed a conventionally sized wood burner the heat would drive me out.  Plus I wanted to be efficient.  So I bought the small stove from NSV but only after a conversation with the owner Andrew Moore.  We talked on the phone.  As we chatted he looked up heating degree days in Ottawa, Illinois, ran some numbers, and figured if I built my shack with 2x6 studs packed with fiberglass insulation the Sardine would be big enough in the shack to keep me warm through most Illinois winters.  It’s dimensions are 12" x 12 "x 11".

He was right.  But it takes a while to get the shack warm when the temperature is below zero like it was this week.  Wednesday wasn’t easy.  Today’s not great.  I keep my coat on for a while.  Wear these gloves for starters when I write.

My right side gets warm first: cheek, shoulder, thigh.  The stove is on my right, up against the east wall which is a sliding patio door.  You don’t get instant heat, but when it warms up its damn cozy.

As for the efficiency of the stove, I offer this as an example.  Every other day I cut up a batch of split wood from the woodpile into stove-sized chunks and it lasts me a day and a half to two in the shack depending on the temperature.  In this cold weather I have been carrying a similar sized batch of logs into the house each night to burn in the fireplace.  We burn that same batch up in the house in three hours.  Stoves give you real heat.  Fireplaces let the heat go up the chimney.  If you’re serious about heating with wood buy a stove.

Here’s the thing with wood.  It takes work.  It has to be cut, split, stored, and dried.  It takes planning and preparation to put together a winter’s supply of wood.  It’s a year-round deal.  Even when its ready to burn you have to lug it to the stove and stoke it yourself.  And for this little stove, it has to be cut once again to stove sized chunks.  The top of the stove has only a 5-inch diameter opening.


Fortunately, I live on a double lot on the edge of a ravine and have a lot of trees.  So far, I’ve burned only wood that has been produced around me, mostly oak.  Oak is my main fuel, a hardwood providing most of the BTU’s.  It burns slow and long.  It’s great stuff.  But you can’t just throw a match into a stove full of oak and have a fire.

The fuel that starts the oak comes from everywhere it seems.  I kept all the scraps from building the shack in dog food bags.  Before I retired, when I moonlighted as a my own contractor, I shoved the bags under the building.  SPF (spruce, pine fir) 2x scraps, fir flooring, cedar siding, treated porch plank ends.  I kept it all.  It’s long gone, as is the dog,  but it was wonderful kindling.  All that finished dried lumber splits and burns great, especially the cedar.  It’s like butter.  I could go on.  Here’s the formula for a shack fire. 

Half a brown paper grocery bag, a handful of pine or some other quick starting, fast burning fuel,  a couple chunks of oak, followed when you hear it roar by more oak.  Replenish throughout a cold day.  You can start that all happening and light a stick of incense with one match.  I’ve heard it said that all men are pyromaniacs.  However I think people are, men and women both.

It strikes me there is something wonderfully human about starting and enjoying fire.  Because once you start it you can sit back and reap the benefit of what you’ve done.  It’s immediate success or failure.  And the saving grace is if it doesn’t start the first time you get endless chances.  There’s no judging when you’re alone in a shack.

This winter a new friend of the family gave me garbage bags full of pine cones.  Pine cones make lovely fire starters.  I keep an old grease bucket off the farm filled with them.  I fill the bottom of half a brown paper bag, stick it in the stove, pile kindling on the bag, and top it with an oak chunk.  After the paper lights the pine cones they blaze big and take everything else along with them.  You can hear the fire crackle.

In regard to fuel I have an embarrassment of riches.  A fishing buddy gives me the wood scraps of an annual project he does in his wife’s store.  My brother the woodworker, a.k.a. cabinetmaker, fulfiller of family project requests, gives me wood scraps from his shop.  All manner of wood: chunks, slices, grooved surfaces, mistakes, ugly pieces, of every species.  I’m having a hell of a time burning the walnut though.  There is something wrong with burning walnut.  I find myself setting it aside, protecting it from the stove.

“David that walnut’s too small to do anything with.  Trust me, if it was bigger I wouldn’t have tossed it in the scrap bucket.”

“I know Denny but its walnut.  It’s too pretty and fine. “

“Too pretty and fine for what?  You going to make a miniature dollhouse?  Burn it.  It’s good hardwood.  It will keep you warm.  What’s oak then?  Oak’s a great wood and your burn it all the time.  Burn the walnut.  It’s not so different.  That’s why I give it to you.”

If I had walnut trees growing all around me I might feel differently.  But I have oak trees.  I just planted one.  Two have come up volunteer, planted I’m pretty sure by forgetful squirrels.  As the big oaks age the young oaks grow. I have a good feeling about burning oak in this stove.  Like it’s meant to be.  Burning walnut?  It still feels like a sin.

A very nice woman gives me corn cobs she picks up in her field.  Corn cobs are perfect for extending a fire when you’re at the end of your time in the shack.  Rather than firing up more oak I throw on corn cobs for a short burst of intense heat.  Among the fuels I use in the shack, cobs have the most passion.  They heat up fast, give you everything, and then they’re done.  And sustainable?  The number of cobs burned for fuel in America is infinitesimal.  If you live anywhere in Illinois outside Chicago there are acres and acres of cobs all around you.  The farmers ignore them, discarding them back on the field to enrich the soil.  All that good fuel, just laying there.  With a pile of cobs as big as one crib’s worth, a mountain of cobs like those produced when we shelled out the my Dad’s corn crib each year as a kid, I could heat this shack for three years I think.  I’ll never get the chance to prove that.

And so I have a good feeling about this stove, the future of the shack, and the sustainability of this little local system.  Cut wood, burn it, write in the shack when its warm.  This deal could go on way longer than me.  For example, as I type these words there is a sizeable dead branch hanging outside the very window I see through when I look above my computer screen.

At one time I would have looked upon it sadly as the diminishment of a once thriving tree.  Now when I see it I think of where I will put the ladder and make the cut with the chainsaw so the branch falls at the edge of the ravine, ready to be cut into pieces and carried to the woodshed.  It’s a subtle change in thinking but important.  What once was a tree is now stored fuel, ready to heat me up next winter.  Life is a cycle.  Too bad humans don’t serve some similarly useful purpose, stacked up and waiting, ready to provide someone benefit after they die.

Thoughts About The Blog

To be honest I hesitate to write about Dave in the Shack.  The blog is nothing but a digital chimera that carries these words.  I suppose I could care less about the details and structure of the blog, but I can‘t imagine how.  My kids encouraged me to write it, not that it took much encouragement.  Aside from the name of the blog, and the picture of the shack, Dean and Maureen chose the colors, the font, and the template.  All I do is write my thoughts, copy and paste a Word file into the blog, insert a picture or two, and post it.  Then you read it.  Which is only right.  All that matters is the writing and reading, just as in music it is playing and hearing.  writing is a personal human interaction, and an important one at that.  The vehicle doesn’t matter.  Although digital beats paper all to hell I must admit.  I wouldn’t be mailing this to you at 49 cents a pop that’s for sure.

I know how many blogs I write and how many people open the link to it through a digital report I get each week from Blogspot.  This is my 32nd blog post of  2017, down from 44 posts each of the two previous years.  Readership varies widely.  I always make triple digits, besting 99 readers.  My highest read blog before a few weeks ago was “A Week Away” about fishing in Canada.  963 people opened that link to supposedly read that Ontario tale.  I have a sneaking suspicion from the comments that piece made it to younger readers, who share things on FaceBook more readily.

That was the most read blog post until I posted “Food and Shelter” the week before Thanksgiving.  Something amazing happened with that post.  It was shared on FaceBook 50 times or so and has so far been opened by 10,057 individuals.  That’s shocking.  That post about homeless people and homelessness is ten times more popular, if you gauge popularity by supposed reads, than anything else I’ve written in five years.  Heck let’s face it, anything I've written ever.  If only one day each of those readers would buy my book.  But I’m making progress.  I doubt more than ten people ever read any grant I ever put together for YSB.

If I knew what was so compelling about that homeless story I would write more like it, but I don’t.  Thank you however for reading it.  The next post, “Getting the Tree”,  had my second highest readership ever at 1,303, and now the blog is returning to normal.  I have a good feeling about you though, one of my loyal regular readers.  The relationship we have feels sustainable, not unlike wood.  But for those readers who sometimes still ask if it’s OK to share my writing, let me say once again loudly.


I’ve learned two things about writing.  Nobody likes your stuff more than you, and every writer wants more readers.  If you think your friends would enjoy one of these posts by all means share it.  More is better.  That is what the internet is for.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end.  I hope the new year finds you filled with hope.  The past 365 days were wonderful for me.  I hope both you and I have a similarly great 2018.  It’s the year I get published I think.  But then I said that last year. I hope everything you desire happens in 2018.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Ted's Last Christmas

If you've been reading Dave in the Shack for a while you've read this story before.  I haven't hauled it out in a couple years.  It's had several titles.  The story comes from the days I worked at a nursing home and a man I met there.  Every Christmas Eve I think of Ted. 

I hope you're with family or friends and have good memories of this evening too.  Enjoy.

I was the only male nurse’s aide in the place.  They assigned me most every day to the segregated men’s wing where I made men’s beds, helped them shower, took them to the basement dining hall, emptied their urinals and  bedpans, persuaded them to sign over their Social Security checks, brought snacks to their room, did all the things nurse’s aides do.  It was the 70’s.  I was back from a trip to South America and profoundly broke.  The nursing home job came available first.  I took it and learned a lot there.

One of the things I learned was the depth to which people can be alone.  One of the guys on my wing was Ted Becker.  Ted was a bachelor farmer whose parents were both dead.   When Ted was sixty, years after he had moved out of his parent’s farmhouse due to its poor condition and into a mobile home by the machine shed, he suffered a debilitating stroke in his tiny trailer living room.  At the time Ted was morbidly obese.

The story, as told by the other nurse’s aides (which well could have been rumor) was that the EMT’s had a difficult time getting him out of the trailer.  Ted couldn’t walk, they could barely pick him up, and the gurney, with Ted on it, wouldn’t fit through the door.  They used a power saw to enlarge the doorway.  Those are the kind of indignities I hope are never rumored about me.  When Ted left the hospital following his stroke he came to the nursing home, recovered somewhat, but never returned to normal life.  That was four years before I came to work there.

“Ted was morbidly obese?” I asked.

“That was before we put him on a diet” one of my co-workers said proudly.  “He was over almost five fifty when he came in.”

I looked at Ed down the hall, slumped and scrawny in his tall back chair.  He couldn’t have weighed more than 160 pounds soaking wet.  That would explain the huge folds of skin that draped from his body in the shower.  Though undoubtedly healthy it also struck me as cruel somehow.  The tall back wheel chairs had a tray fixed in front that kept the patients confined or safe depending on how you looked at it.  Ted couldn’t have gotten up by himself anyway, but the tall chair, in addition to trapping him, did help him sit straight.  Ted slumped to his right side.  I straightened him up several times each day.
Everything on his right side-face, hand, arm, leg, foot-were fairly useless.  The stroke had taken away his speech.  Occasionally he would grunt but not often.  He got a lot done with his left side though.  He could get his left foot just beyond the lower platform of his chair and propel himself slowly down the hall.  If he could get the left side of his chair to the rail that ran the length of the hall he could pull himself even faster.  Try as I might I could not picture Ted as a fat man.

“I guess that explains why he’s so hungry,” I said.

Ted was beyond hungry.  He was ravenous.  You had to have a strong stomach to watch Ted eat.  Think Labrador Retriever and a bowl of dog food. The guy was crazy to eat.  He absolutely coveted the snack cart I brought around mid afternoon.  You had to watch him like a hawk.  If you did you would see him inching towards it, pushing against the linoleum with that left foot, slowly, deceptively.  Ted, sly and furtive, snuck so slowly towards the snack car, agonizingly slow for him I’m sure, I could barely detect it.  Ted betrayed himself by looking at me intently and smiling, something he rarely if ever did.  If Ted succeeded in getting within reach of the cart with his left hand, it was a swift and all out attack.  Within seconds it was furiously rapid movement, left hand filled with food directly to a gaping mouth.       

It wasn’t only food.  Ted would stuff toilet paper in his mouth.  Try to eat Kleenex.  The guy would eat anything.   Before you know it his mouth would be absolutely stuffed with whatever was within his reach.  He was in constant danger of choking.  Unashamed, constant, ravenous gluttony defined Ted’s existence there.  Without speech, the means to express himself, or the ability to walk food became his currency, his goal, his life’s desire.

I soon realized that no one visited Ted.  The nurse’s aides from the area thought he might have had a sister that moved away, but no one knew anything about Ted’s family.  And Ted couldn’t tell us.  So he lived his days in the nursing home as a solitary soul.  The meaning of that didn’t fully sink in till Christmas. 

Except for the Alzheimer patients and those with severe dementia, nothing brightens the life of a nursing home resident like visitors, presents, or mail.  Christmas was a time when all those things increased.  Around the holidays residents went to their family’s homes, and if that was not possible the families visited, brought food and brightly wrapped presents, decorated their rooms, sat and talked, and brought the grand kids, most of whom looked bored and scared at the same time.  But Ted got none of that.

In addition to in person visits, the old people in the nursing home who were lucky got cards from family and friends, old neighbors, you name it.  I did mail call for my guys on the wing and I’d walk that sad hallway down and back each morning handing out envelopes, opening them for the guys if they could not.  Every day Ted looked hopefully from behind his tray.  The skin on Ted’s face sagged and made his eyes look bigger.  He had soulful blue eyes.  He looked up hopefully.  There was never mail for Ted.

“Not today Ted.”

The few days before Christmas were the heaviest card days.  I had a big basket of mail to pass out.  When I came to Ted’s room he was there, slumped over in his chair wearing a plaid flannel shirt with drool on it, khakis, and his black Chuck Taylor high tops.  The Chucks were good for Ted because he was incontinent at times, and when he had accidents we could easily wash the canvas shoes.   I had dressed him.  His eyes were glued to the mail as if it was a pan of brownies.

 “Ted you got a card.”

His eyes grew big.  I straightened him up.  He fumbled with the envelope with his one working hand and when he couldn’t open it I opened it for him.  It was a card from the nursing home administrator.  Everyone got the same cheap card.  She had her signature stamped inside.  But to add a personal touch she wrote “Ted” before the cheesy Christmas message. 

“Look Ted, she wrote your name.” 

Ted looked up at me and his eyes filled with tears.  He cried openly.  Stroke victims will do that.  Ted had gotten a Christmas card and he was crying for joy that someone remembered him.  It was from a nursing home administrator who rarely left her office and didn’t know Ted from a bale of hay.  But it was everything to Ted.  I think that was the moment I knew I had to get out of that job.  It was just too sad.

Thankfully on Christmas Eve I didn’t have to work.  I had bought a few presents and got ready to drive to my parent’s farm house in Danvers.  My parents were both alive then and I was looking forward to seeing my brothers and sisters and the nieces and nephews.  Christmas on the farm is a whole other story but I love Christmas more than any other holiday.  Before I left town I got gas on the South side near the nursing home.  It was before you could pay at the pump so I went inside to pay with cash.  There was a candy counter there.  As I was paying I looked down through the glass top at the candy bars and as the kid was handing me my change said

“Give me a couple of those Snickers too, would you please?”

It was dark when I parked on the street by the nursing home and walked across the yard to the side door.  I made my way up the back stairs to my guys’ wing. It was that quiet time after dinner but before lights out.  I went down the hall to Ted’s room.  He was slumped in his chair, sleeping.  Ted didn’t have a TV like most of the guys.  He didn’t have anything really but clothes.  His one and only Christmas card was thumb tacked to his otherwise empty bulletin board. 

I turned on Ted’s bed lamp rather than the overhead light.  The rooms then were bright and stark; florescent overhead lights, white walls, shiny linoleum floor, hand cranked metal bed, metal nightstand, and a Formica tray on a stand that rolled over the bed.  To make things worse it was too hot in those rooms, radiators cooking, air not moving, and always the smell of urine.  Christmas Eve in the nursing home.  May we all be spared such a fate. 

“Wake up Ted I’ve got something for you.”

I gave him a minute to open his eyes and get used to me being there before straightening him up in his chair.

“Ted I’ve got something for you but have to cooperate.  It’s not on your diet and I don’t want you telling a bunch of people I’m giving you this.  But you strike me as a guy who can keep his mouth shut.  Can you do that?”

Ted may have gotten the joke but could smile only crookedly so I couldn’t tell.  I had his attention however.   When I took the Snickers out of my coat pocket his eyes lit up.

“OK Ted, I want you to eat this slow so you don’t choke, you understand?”

When he realized what was about to happen he literally began to drool.  I got some Kleenex out of his night stand and wiped his chin.  With my Swiss Army knife I cut a small piece of the Snickers and put it on his tray.  His left hand flashed out and the chunk of candy bar was in his mouth almost before I knew what happened.  He stared at me as if I was going to dig it out of his mouth as I had done so often with other things before.

“Ted I want you to chew that slow and swallow it before I give you more.”  He did.

I cut off another piece.  We repeated that five times with the first candy bar. 

“You feel OK Ted?”

Ted nodded enthusiastically.

“You don’t feel sick do you?”

Ted shook his head vigorously in the negative.  I wiped his chin with the Kleenex again.

I took out the second candy bar.  We did it again.  I can’t say he slowed down much, but I think he began to savor the bites a little more.  That could have been my imagination.  I wiped his chin once more. 

“This is the last piece Ted and then I have to go.”

I laid the remaining piece of Snickers on his tray. He didn’t take it.

“What the hell Ted, aren’t you going to eat that?”

He just stared at me.

 “Ted it’s yours.  Eat it.  I brought it for you for Christ’s sake.” 

He didn’t move.  His left hand hung down by his side.  Then he brought his hand up, pointed his finger at the piece of Snickers, and pointed to me.  I couldn’t figure out what he was doing.  He kept pointing at the candy and then pointing at me.  Then I realized he wanted me to have the last piece.  The guy who would eat the envelope his only Christmas card came in was sharing his candy bar with me.  I was dumbfounded. 

I ate it.  Just Ted and I in a barren nursing home room with a single dim light.  He looked at me closely as I chewed the Snickers, his eyes bright.  I looked back at him.   

I think people that don’t or can’t talk; babies, those who don’t know your language, stroke victims, all those lacking words, try to express themselves with their eyes.  And sometimes if you pay close attention they succeed.  Or is that just us giving words to their expressions?  We don’t know.  I thought that night Ted talked to me.  I think he said thanks.  I think he wished me a Merry Christmas too.  You could see it in his eyes, his poor old big blue eyes.

“Merry Christmas to you too Ted.

I thought he smiled.

 And thank you.”

That was my only Christmas in the nursing home.  I left in the spring.  Ted died later that fall.   Choked on not one but many stolen ham sandwiches.  I suspect someone didn’t watch the snack cart closely enough.  I never forgot Ted, or the kindness in his eyes that Christmas Eve.  If we let it, Christmas brings out the best in all of us.

Merry Christmas.