Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blue Christmas

It’s just me, the two Sergei’s, and a couple of musicians out here in the shack this morning. I’m writing while Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s notes are filling my shack through the magic of digital recording. The musicians are Yo Yo Ma on cello and Emanuel Ax on piano. It’s amazing how much music you can get out of just a cello and piano. They’re playing Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major Opus 119, and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor Opus 19. The CD cover has the rapturous faces of Yo Yo (did his Mom and Dad have a sense of humor or what?) and Emanuel playing merrily away. My question, which should get top billing, the composer or the musicians?

Musicians tend to hog the credit. Lots of people can play the cello and piano, and those guys do a fine job, but who can write the kind of inspired music that emerges from their instruments, into to some gizmo or other, and later out the shack speakers into my ears this morning? It’s beautiful stuff. My vote is for the composers. These guys, Prokofiev born in the Ukraine in 1891 and Rachmaninoff in Russia in 1873, wrote music their whole lives, beginning when they were pre-schoolers. I imagine the notes in these sonatas taking shape in their heads, them hearing and seeing with no noise the sound of them, playing the notes perhaps, stringing them together, feeling the notes of one instrument complement the other, then writing it all down. I love the flow of these pieces, the beauty, the tenderness, the energy. I’d call them geniuses. They had a gift they shared with us, the Sergei’s. If they weren’t dead I’d thank them. Maybe I just did.

It started out overcast but the sun has broken through on this morning after Christmas Day. I don’t know what’s up with the squirrels in this neighborhood but five of them are chasing each other all over the place. From time to time they scamper on a dead run past the big window in the shack. Just a while ago they ran across my roof, jumped on a tree, and disappeared into the ravine. That must be where the expression “squirrelly” originated. Animals lead such simple lives, each day the same as their last. At times I envy them.

I’m quietly enjoying a new cast iron teapot, a Christmas present from my wife, and some high mountain green tea, yet another gift from Julie, my daughter’s friend in Taiwan. The best part of Christmas is the people we connect with. It’s them that make Christmas I think.

So what happens if Christmas Day comes and goes and the tension and anxiety you‘ve been feeling does not? What if you do everything; put up the tree, bake the cookies, buy the presents, cook the meal, attend the church service, greet the guests-and no Christmas miracle happens? What do you do then?

Sadly or not, I think we fake it, trying not to ruin everyone else’s Christmas. We certainly don’t talk about it. It’s kept inside. Blue Christmas is real for many people. And really, how can we expect one day, however well orchestrated, to cure our sorrows? How can we pin all our hopes, desperate as they might be, on the back of one little infant child, no matter how holy? Is it fair? Is it realistic?

If Christmas didn’t happen for you, if you found yourself silently in despair, you’re not alone. We’re deep in winter. The ground is frozen and the nights are long and dark. It’s okay if you weren’t touched by joy. We have each other and we have the rest of our lives. Most importantly we have today and the days ahead. Take it slow. Do what you can to make each day better. Don’t allow small defeats to weigh you down. Find peace in small things. And above all don’t be hard on yourself, or you’ll miss comfort and joy when it does happen in your life. It’s like not hearing the music when it plays.

Today’s Christmas has evolved into a single day but in the church it’s a season. In the liturgical calendar Christmas has twelve days, ending on January 5th. Even if you’re not religious you should take this concept and run with it. Today is only the second day of Christmas. You have time. Wait for it and be patient so you feel it whenever it arrives. Listen closely.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Jail, Bail, and Christmas

It’s never made sense to me that Sunday starts the week but three hours into this one I was wakened by a cell phone call. I answered it by reflex. Calls in the middle of the night were always about work. I forgot . On the phone was a young man I’ve known his whole life, which represents about one third of mine. He’s no longer a minor but he’s still a kid. I had a hard time figuring out what he was saying. He was loud, talking fast, and not letting me into the conversation. I kept saying

“Where are you?”

But he ignored me. Someone was yelling in the background, telling him to get off the phone. He yelled back. Before he hung up he said

“Call the police department!”

Five hours into the first day of this week I woke up, checked my cell phone, and found the same unknown number had called me three times, leaving three voice mails. I listened to the first one. It was a recording telling me how to accept a collect call. I called the police department and inquired about the young man who had called me earlier.

“He was here, we held him for a while, but all those kids are gone. Call the county jail.”

I called. He was there. I identified myself and ask what he was charged with. It wasn’t a bad charge in the world of law breaking, fairly minor in fact. Then I inquired as to the amount of bail required to get him out of jail. I weighed my connection with him against the dollar amount.

“I’ll be there in half an hour,” I said.

Sunday was bitter cold. The parking lot was largely empty and the jail was quiet. I found the second entry door locked. I looked into the brightly lit lobby and it was absolutely empty, save for a metal detector, a desk, and a stained cloth office chair. Dark windows covered most of the wall opposite me. I didn’t know how to get in. Then I saw a sign directing me to push the buzzer on my right. Before I could talk on the intercom the door buzzed, the electronic lock clacked open, and I entered the county jail. It was going on 5:30 a.m..

I didn’t know whether to go through the metal detector or not. I went around it, hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble for doing so. I couldn’t see anyone behind the dark glass. It was thick. Bulletproof. I could see the bank of video surveillance monitors with scenes flashing on and off; the front door, the lobby, the hallway, something else, repeat. Then a face, disembodied, really just the eyes and mouth, appeared behind the glass. A voice came through a speaker
.
“Can I help you?”

I identified myself again, identified the person I was there to bail out.

“Do I pay you?”

“See the unit on the wall? Looks like an ATM? Follow the instructions. When your payment is approved an officer will talk to you.”

It was touch screen. Enter this, enter that, hit next. The amount of bail appeared. I’d brought cash. There was a slot for inserting cash but in large letters was a notice “ANY BILLS INSERTED HERE WILL BE RETAINED. THIS MACHINE DOES NOT GIVE CHANGE.”

My Dad kept a small wad of cash on the farm in case, as he once told me “I have to bail one of you kids out of jail.”

He smiled as he said that. It was just he and I in the basement.

“You think I’m going to get thrown in jail?” I asked, smiling back.

“You’d know that better than me,” he said.

I always thought bail had to be made in cash, that’s why I brought it. Clearly this machine preferred my VISA card. Five minutes after the machine spit out a receipt a door opened and a real person appeared in the lobby. The first whole person I’d encountered since I arrived.

“Are you here for Jones?” (Not his real last name.)

“Yeah.”

“Do you have any clothing for him? He’s here without a coat, and I came in not long ago and know how cold it is out there.”

“My car is close.” I thought it was thoughtful of him to be concerned about my friend being warm.

“Has he been cooperative?” I asked.

“Yeah. He’s been quiet.”

“It’s just the one charge, the trespassing?”

“Yeah. Just that. Housing encourages local law enforcement to make those charges you know. Helps them control their properties better.”

“I know. I’m familiar with it. Are there other warrants out on him?” I asked. “Like in other states?”

“We only check locally on a small charge like this. If there was something outside the area we wouldn’t know. I have something for you to sign. I want to show you the paperwork for court. You’ll want to make sure he shows up.”

“He will.”

“OK. He’ll be out in a few minutes. I have to check out his belongings.”

He went back through the door. It shut hard and locked. I looked at the control room but saw nothing but the glow of the video monitors. I looked around the stark lobby. Walled off, with the doors locked all around me, I felt a bit like I was in jail too.

My young friend walked through the door where the guard had exited. He looked skinny, and tired. He was wearing a thin hoodie and a T shirt. His pants sagged. His eyes were bleary. He walked up and hugged me. He smelled like beer.

“I’m so sorry you had to come here. Thank you so much.” He was carrying a big sheet of cardboard. On it was everything he had on him when he came to jail, laminated in see through plastic to the cardboard. Keys. Cell phone. Three lighters. A wallet.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Someone buzzed the door as we approached it. In the space between the first door and the outside door my friend realized he didn’t have his hat.

“My hat. It’s gone. I just got that hat.”

“You can get another one. You might have lost it in the squad car or on the street. Let’s keep going.”

The cold air hit us hard when we walked outside. He clutched his hoodie to his neck and bent down into the wind. When we got in the Buick he was shivering.

I’m going to court with you. It’s January 15th. You have to be there. You understand?”
“Yeah. I have to be there cause you’re responsible.”

“That’s right. But not because I’m responsible but because you want to stay out of trouble yourself. You should plead guilty and take your fine. I’m not going to apply the bail money to the fine. You’ll have to pay that.”

“Yeah. A guy in the jail said you can pay it a little at a time.”

“You want to pay it off as soon as you can. It’s a pain for everyone-judges, court staff, you. They can’t dismiss the charge till you pay that fine.” As I was saying that, I had no idea where he would get the money.

“Did you call your aunt?” His aunt was about the only family he had.

“No. She doesn’t have any money. She couldn’t have bailed me out.”

“Where you been staying?”

“With my girl friend. She got arrested too. I don’t know where she is. I can’t go there.”

“So where am I taking you?”

“I guess to my aunt’s.”

“Does she have a place now?”

Yeah.”

“Will she let you in?”

“I think so.”

“Are you on the do not admit list at the shelter?”

“No. Not that I know of. My aunt is I think.”

“Well you can always go there.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Then call your aunt.”

He fumbled around tearing the plastic from the cardboard to free his phone. When he got it out he powered it up and started to push in the numbers.

“I’m out of minutes.” He dropped the phone into his lap and looked out the window. “I feel so pathetic.”

“Look, you didn’t kill anybody. You got thrown in jail on a misdemeanor and now you’re out. Your future is all about work. Until you get work and some money nothing is going to change, nothing is going to get better.”

As I said that I looked at him. Scrawny kid, too old for youth programs, GED (he says), no work history, bad clothes, scraggly beard. Dishwashing maybe? I just don’t know. He doesn’t follow up on everything I suggest. But he tries. He hasn’t known much else for a long time.

I wish it was different. I wish he had grown up here and we could have served him at YSB. I wish he could have found some kind of success in our local schools. But he didn’t. He starts from where he is, and he’s not in a good place.

He directed me to his aunt’s new place as the sky was getting light.

“I’ll stay here till I see you get in.”

“OK.”

“Thanks again, I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“I do. You would have stayed in jail. I can’t do this many times you know. You have to take care of yourself.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Get some minutes on that phone or call me from someone else’s after the first of the year. You’re going to make that court date, and I’m going with you. January 15. 9:00 in the monring.”
“Don’t worry about that. When’s Christmas?”

“Next Wednesday.”

“Have a good one Dave.”

“You too.”

He went up the stairs and knocked on the door. The door opened. He turned and waved, then disappeared inside.

It’s my first Christmas on a fixed income and my first Christmas away from YSB since 1978. I thought maybe I would cut back a little on my Holiday giving but I haven’t. If anything, I want to give more. Since I’ve left social work I realize how low on the radar kids like my young friend fall. Puppies and kittens in America get more sympathy than children growing up in poverty. The agencies that have the ability, and the initiative, to help families with kids liked the one I bailed out of jail when it counts, when they are young, need our help more than ever.

I’ve become something of my own United Way. I give to those organizations I know need the money and do the most good. Tops on my list is YSB. I hope you remember to write them a check this Christmas. By doing so, you help young people who are the casualties of families who live in poverty, suffer family dysfunction, and fall to the bottom of the heap. The kids YSB serves find few friends and even less support. We somehow blame them for their problems. Agencies like YSB, however, are there for them. Please be there for YSB.

Merry Christmas to you and your family. Hold one another tight. You make each other strong.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Artifical Calamari

Sometimes I figure out what I’m feeling by listening to what I say. I’m not forced to talk nearly as much as when I was working. On some days, when I get to the shack early and work all morning, I don’t utter a word till almost noon. I tend to remember what I say now, because I say fairly little compared to when I was directing a social service agency. When I do talk to people they sometimes ask me something like this:

“So do you miss work?” And I reply along these lines:

“Funny, but I worried for years that I would miss work terribly. I’d done it for so long. I didn’t know how it would feel. But when I quit working, I liked it right away and thought of work very little. It surprised me. So no, I don’t miss it. Really.”

What I don’t miss most is the intrusion of painful reality, unimaginable happenings, into my thoughts. I have even found that I can go back to instances where I was interrupted by the reality of work, just as I was beginning to think something through, and pick it up where I left off.

That’s where I got the idea for this week’s story. While still employed I was driving somewhere, listening to an intriguing episode of This American Life on National Public Radio, when I got a call on my cell phone. It was a call I had to take. I looked at my cell phone, saw who was calling, and knew I had to have a frank discussion, probably a long one. I hit mute on my car radio. I figured I could always look up the story later. Later arrived this week. I rediscovered a trivial story too good to pass up.

I recalled this whole thing a month ago while buying Pacific Cod at Kroger. I’d never heard of Pacific Cod. I thought maybe it was a name made up to capitalize on the solid reputation of Atlantic Cod, the standard tasty fish of Friday night fish fries in the Midwest. You can get it broiled now, but the old time aficionados go for the battered deep fried kind with fries. Add hand battered deep fried onion rings as an appetizer and you have some serious grease going on. At least there’s the salad bar.

But there it was in the fish case, Pacific Cod. I baked it and found it not as firm, not as tasty, as Atlantic Cod but not bad. I looked up Pacific Cod on the Internet. Turns out no one agrees on the name of this fish. Some call that species grey cod, certainly not Alaskan black cod or ling cod, while others just call it Pollock. There must be tons of Pollock out there, along with Whiting, and someone in the fish industry must be dying to call it something else so it sells better. Whatever Pacific Cod is, in the end it is cheap protein with hardly any fat, and while it cries out for some sort of sauce to give it zing there’s no cause to turn your nose up over it.

Turns out this whole labeling shiftiness is nothing new. They even have a name for it. Surimi, the fine art of disguising one fish as another, dates back to 12th-century Japan. Basically, Surimi makers grind up cheaper fish and craft the resulting paste to mimic the look, taste, and texture of more expensive fish. I imagine it as fish sticks on a much higher level. Surimi took a giant and profitable leap forward in 1993 when Oregon State University’s Jae Park, a food-science professor and the creator of fake crab or crabstick (Park’s preferred term), began leading the Surimi School, an annual short format seminar in Astoria. Since then, he’s trained more than 4,500 people to twist, color, and mold lesser fish into fancy forgeries. Last year, Seafood Executive magazine named the professor one of the 100 most powerful leaders in the global seafood industry. Why? Crabstick sells for $3-$4 a pound. Dungeness Crab sells for $30-$35 a pound. And while crabstick is a processed food that contains lots of sodium along with cryoprotectants, artificial flavoring, and coloring all added to the base of ground Whiting or Pollock, it has less cholesterol than natural crab (before the garlic butter) and it’s sustainable. We, the bulging we of all us humans on the planet, can eat Snow Crabs and King Crabs into extinction but we’ll never, they say, run out of Pollock and Whiting.

What caught my ear that day before I muted the radio because of pressing work, which turned out to be January 11th of this year, was artificial calamari made from some kind of pork product. Calamari is Italian plural for calamaro, which is a squid. The Italians claim they made calamari famous by slicing it into rings, deep frying it, squeezing lemon over it, and serving it with marinara sauce. Truth is calamari, or squid, is served all over the world. But where ever and however it is served it has always seemed to me to have a distinctive texture and taste. How, I thought, could you possibly create a passable equivalent to calamari? I was intrigued.

This was an episode of This American Life that seemed somehow whimsical. Lots of background music building fake tension. But my mind was on much more important things and I missed it. I went to the This American Life website and listened to the whole podcast yesterday. You can do that too by going to and registering at their site and going to the archives. I borrowed heavily from NPR’s script to write this piece. Whether you listen to the podcast or read the rest of the story you have to take this in. It’s a food science horror story.

A reporter for This American Life (TAL), Ben Calhoun, got a tip about a farmer "with some standing in the pork industry" who is in charge of "a pork producing operation that spans several states." One fine day this farmer was visiting a pork processing plant in Oklahoma, and noticed boxes stacked on the floor labeled "artificial calamari." Asked what that meant, Ron Meek, the plant's extremely talkative and credible sounding manager, and friend of the nameless farmer not willing to go on the record, replied "Bung. It's hog rectum." For clarity, Calhoun adds "Rectum that would be sliced into rings, deep fried, and boom, there you have it."

Rectum is of course a nicer word for asshole. An individual piece of bung, hog rectum, or asshole would be a ten to twelve inch length of large intestine leading to the actual rectum end point, a pink wrinkly looking pear sort of thing on the one end. Ron Meek described them as soft tubes resembling noodles.

The farmer, who confirmed the story but chose to remain nameless, declined to go on record with the reporter about the incident because his girlfriend warned him about his name being forever linked to pig rectum in Google searches. Smart man. But manager Ron Meek did agree to speak on the record. He claimed he never personally saw the label "artificial calamari" but that's what he was told by the people he worked for, and he believed them. And in an interview, his bosses backed the assertion that pig rectum was being sold for use as imitation calamari. They just couldn't say where.

I know this sounds bad. This might be easier for me because I grew up on a farm, but consider this: if you eat sausage you’re eating various meats packed in diligently washed and cleaned intestine which lives just up the street, so to speak, from the bung in question. Bung just gets a little thicker at the end there. As for the calamari question, the plant manager wouldn't say what happened to the bung once it got out the door, but confirmed that they ship a lot of it to Asia, particularly China. Everyone assumes it primarily ends up in the sausage, most of which is after all “whole hog.” Now that’s a two edged sword. To get the hams you have to take the asshole too. Obviously it would be illegal in America to serve pork rectum and call it calamari, and the USDA says they've never heard of anyone trying to pass pork bung as squid. Officially they say that.

However one food industry attorney told TAL "the regulation we have is not designed to catch an offense like this. It's aimed mostly at sanitation and food safety. If someone wanted to do it, chances are they'd get away with it." Given the fact that pork bung is sold at less than half the cost of calamari, the financial incentive is enormous.

What sealed the deal for me after listening to the podcast, what made me believe the unconfirmed story, was the taste test. The reporter, having run into a brick wall of no solid informant he could quote, turns instead to plausibility. At that point he becomes less a journalist and more of a creative soul. He appeals to his sister, a chef, to cook pork bung side by side with calamari and conduct a taste test with his friends at the radio station. As she prepared the two products for deep frying she was doubtful. While the squid retained its ring shape the pork bung twisted into something that looked mangled. Appearance aside, she believed the bung, having been marinated for the life of the pig in its own shit, could not shake that taste. To counteract that possibility she brined half of it, soaking it in salt water for a full day, while preparing the remainder simply as fresh clean pork bung. She breaded the squid and bung the same, fried it the same, and served it blindly in three batches at her restaurant to a group of volunteers willing to help the reporter with his story.

Especially poignant was the story of a young Italian man who had just started working at the station. His family ate Calamari regularly both at family dinners and at restaurants. His grandmother used to buy her own squid and make it herself. His fear was that he would not be able to tell the difference and be forever jinxed from eating calamari again owing simply to the possibility that he could be chewing a pig’s ass.

As she was frying the bung, the reporter’s sister was amazed to see the twisted form smooth out into a presentable ring during frying. In baskets side by side in the hot oil she saw little or no difference. She figured the taste would give it away or if not the taste the texture. To her, texture is the wild card in food recognition. She believes we love the feel as much as the taste of our favorite foods. She brought the plates to the table. Standard calamari made from squid, pork bung brined in order to neutralize any bad taste, and straight up fresh pork bung sliced, breaded and fried. The tasting began.

Absolutely no difference. As many thought the calamari was pork bung as believed the pork bung was sliced fried squid. Texture, taste appearance-nothing was different from one plate to the other. It was amazing, and devastating to the Italian man. He left the restaurant early, mourning the perhaps lifetime loss of calamari and wondering what he could ever tell his family. Simply knowing he might possibly be eating a pig’s asshole led him to vow never to take that chance again.

This is not a nailed down story. It couldn’t be published in a newspaper. Some would ask why it ran on radio. I’d say its because that’s the way life is many times. You can’t prove things are true but you know in your heart they are. This American Life did not prove that pork bung is being sold as calamari. But it raised the possibility. That’s where good stories often start. Stores aren’t fact. But they are great aren’t they? From the day I heard the basics of this story on the radio I imagined a meeting where the idea, the concept of artificial calamari, was developed. And having heard the pod cast, it’s now sort of busting out of me onto this computer screen.

A small but established food distribution company holds its regular weekly meeting. It is chaired by Bob, the company president, but the agenda rarely changes. The meeting is designed by and large as a vehicle for supervising his staff, which is the management team. At the table is Art, a food scientist in charge of product development; Gary, Chief Financial Officer, and Stephanie, newest member of the team and the company’s marketing director. Alice, Bob’s secretary, takes notes. The meeting starts with a report from Art, the food scientist.

“Well it’s no secret that my staff and I have been working on developing an exciting new product, and I’m happy to say I have solid information to share with you about it. I think this is a terrific opportunity for our company. We’re at a point where I need your input and frankly, your help. It has endless financial potential but there is considerable risk involved.”

“What is it Art?” said Stephanie. “Rumor around the plant is that it could be the next crabstick.”

“I know, I’ve heard that rumor too and I’m flattered by the comparison. It’s like crabstick but with some important differences. It’s an artificial calamari. It can be sold as a frozen product, pre breaded ready for deep frying, or it can be sold fresh and uncooked with an even longer shelf life than real calamari.”

“What’s the production cost?” asked Gary. Gary had been through these ideas before with Art and found them financially unfeasible. He wished they would come to him sooner on these things so they didn’t have to waste their time on dead losers.

“Less than half the cost of calamari,” Art said. He gave Gary a steady smile, as if to shut him up. “Half.”

“That sounds too good to be true,” Gary replied.

“But what is it really? Stephanie asked. “Some kind of cheap ground fish mixed with egg whites and starch? What’s in it?”

“That’s the beauty of it and the challenge. It is not a seafood product. We can get all of it we want right here in the Midwest.”

“It’s not that freshwater Asian Carp everyone’s trying to sell us out of the Illinois River I hope.”

“No, it’s even more basic. It’s a pork product. No one would have ever imagined this. It’s a pork product and it’s so perfect, so similar in every way to calamari that you can’t believe it.”

“Pork?” Gary and Stephanie spoke at the same time. “How can a pork product even resemble a sea food product?”

Bob cut in for the first time, having been beaming since the start of Art’s presentation. “That’s what I thought too Gary. When Art first came to me with this breakthrough idea I thought it was absolutely crazy but it grows on you. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. So please, both of you. Hear Art out on this. Show them the pictures Art.”

Art brought out glossy color photos of unbreaded calamari side by side with his artificial calamari. They appeared to be of the same size and have the same color. The artificial calamari was twisted.

“The artificial calamari needs no processing. Unlike Surimi, where similar products are ground and reconstituted with other ingredients to resemble the original, this product is a single tissue, a single body part, that when sliced and cooked is virtually indistinguishable from calamari.”

“It doesn’t look wrinkly?” Gary asked.

“Miraculously, the wrinkles smooth out when it cooks. Takes on the exact shape as the squid.” Art said. He flashed two more pictures of identical plates of round, breaded, cooked appetizers, the real next to the fake.

Gary looked closely at the picture of the artificial calamari. He’d been in the food industry for a long time. “I’ve never seen a pig part like this. What part of the pig is it from?”

Art was quick to say “It’s akin to sausage casing.”

"Sausage casing is intestines. What’s akin to intestine?” He looked up at Bob and Art with a puzzled look
.
“I’m warning you, this is the hard part,” Bob said. “This is where I first balked at the concept.”

“It’s bung. Pork bung.” Art said. The room went quiet.

“Bung as in bunghole?” Stephanie said. There was a pause.

“Yes,” Art said.

“You’re proposing that this company… and I as its marketing director….try to sell a pig’s ass as an Italian seafood appetizer.”

“Stephanie you won’t believe how it tastes. It’s uncanny how much it tastes like calamari. And it’s cheap. We can undercut calamari by twenty percent and still take a huge profit on this artificial stuff. I’m telling you, this can work.”

“You’re nuts! You can’t honestly believe that people will sit down to a plate of deep fried pork ass and eat it like it was just taken out of the Mediterranean by a cute Italian fisherman. It’s asshole! You would be asking people to eat asshole. And I would be asking them to buy it with a straight face. It’s not going to happen. Alice would you eat a pig's ass as if it were seafood and enjoy it?”

Bob, usually calm and in control at these meetings, erupted. “Alice stop taking notes.”

“Stephanie do you want this company to be successful? Or do you want the Chinese to make all the money? Do you think Qingdao International isn’t looking at this very thing right now? How long do you think this will stay a secret? Calamari is a billion dollar industry for Christ's sake. With a B. If we capture even ten percent of that market…OK, maybe it doesn’t sell well in the U.S.. But if we can boost sales overseas to get a ten percent share, that’s a $100 million dollars. $100 million. Do you want to add $100 million to this company’s sales? Do you think that might result in some bigger salaries around here? Well I’ll tell you what, I do want that kind of success and so do our stockholders. I want to this company to be successful and I know we can because I’ve got one of the best management teams in the business. Now if we just stay positive and work together, we can overcome the image difficulties this product presents and meet this challenge.”

Stephanie sat back in her chair and folded her arms in silence. Gary looked at Art, then Bob. The silence was becoming uncomfortable. He turned and spoke to Stephanie.

“He’s right about the money you know.”

Art followed closely with a suggestion for Stephanie. “We’re counting on you to come up with a better name.”

“Than pork bung?” she said.

“Yes.”

Bob smiled broadly at her, putting his hand on hers. “You’re probably the key to making this work Stephanie. We’re all counting on you.”

And thus is born, maybe, a new product to feed the world. See what you can do when you think about the trivial? When you go soft on the facts and instead make up a story? God is it fun. Shut off your phone and turn up the radio. Merry Christmas.




Thursday, December 5, 2013

Short Days

On good days, I walk from the house to the shack in the dark. When it’s cold like today I build a fire first thing. The little steel stove is so cold I try not to touch it. I use the lid lifter with my gloves on to open the stove top. If I remember I open up the control on the side, a wheel with empty wedges, to give it more air. When the fire gets hot I will close off some air to make the wood burn longer.

I start with a piece of brown paper bag. On it I pile thin pine, cut up pieces of lattice from a neighbor’s deck project. On that, one piece of 2 x 4 pine. I strike a wooden farmer match on the arc of the hole that holds the stove lid. One match starts the fire. I tip the match head down. When it’s burning well, I reach into the stove and hold the lit match against a brown paper edge. When the paper begins to flame, I let the match drop.

The fire is fairly quiet at first. There are a few crackles from the thin pine but the paper burns silently. I feel no heat. Inside the stove the flames burn bright. I leave the stove lid off and shut off the overhead light to enjoy the firelight. I sit directly in front of the stove in my chair, my gloved hands folded in my lap, waiting for the heat. Outside the sky begins to brighten, showing the trees. I sit quietly. I try to think of just one thing at a time, until I’m done with that one thing. Then I go on to the next. Sometimes it’s people represented by a face, sometimes it’s a problem, and sometimes they’re the same. When I'm done with those things I try to think of nothing at all. I close my eyes. When I find real quiet, I pray. It works best when I leave words behind altogether.

Here at our latitude we’re in the very short days. Ottawa is at about 41 degrees north. The sun comes up behind the trees and I can’t tell when it rises. Using the tables in The Old Farmer’s Almanac, I figure it breaks the horizon at about 6:59 in the morning and sets at 4:22 in the afternoon. I like to use a pencil and the almanac to calculate this, though I’m sure the Internet would give me the exact answer in a flash. Habit I guess.

Today we’ll have but nine hours and 23 minutes of daylight. Hard to warm up much in that little time, plus the sun’s not strong. This time of year the sun stays low in the sky and further away. Each day we lose a couple minutes of that weakened sun till the 21st of December when it is in the sky barely nine hours. Then it slowly adds a minute or two each day. On June 21st, when we max out on day light, we’ll have 17 hours and 14 minutes of sun. That’s six months from now. From the shortest day on it gets colder yet, the ground freezing, and snow. I can feel it coming.

When I feel the heat from the stove on my face, I add wood and replace the stove lid. There comes a time when the stove is so hot and with such a bed of coals you can add as big and as many pieces of wood as you want. But when the fire is new you can add too much and choke it out. I add but two more pieces of scrap pine and a single chunk of oak to this early morning fledgling fire. I turn my chair from the stove to the desk, switch from gloves with fingers to gloves without, open the laptop and switch it on along with the keyboard and mouse. Beside me, to my right, the little stove is roaring. I feel the heat radiating from it, first on my right ear, right shoulder, right thigh. The air in the shack is hotter now, yet still colder on my left. I open up the Word program, click on the file that holds the story, and stand up to take off my coat, scarf, and hat. I put them on a hook on the door. On the very cold days I just hang up my coat.

I read what I wrote the day before. Yesterday was a good day, 2100 words. If I can chain days like that together I can get somewhere. I like what I’m reading. I remember my place, what I was trying to say, and I know where the story is going next. I smile. I love it when a story comes together. It's like building a fire. I begin to imagine the words I’ll start with today. But first coffee.

I take my ibrik, the little brass pot for making Turkish coffee with the handle slanting up, from its hook by the stove and get coffee and sugar from the shelf. I put two tablespoons of finely ground coffee and a sugar cube in the ibrik, fill it with water from the bottle in the corner, then set it aside and put more wood in the fire. I load the stove up now, arranging the burned pieces so I can pack the stove box full of oak chunks, taking care not to burn my fingers on the hot steel. I throttle down the air to the stove, turning the wheel back. I put the ibrik on to boil. The water heats quickly so I stand with a yellow cotton work glove in my hand as a hot pad to grab the ibrik when the coffee boils to the top. As I wait I look out the big window behind the stove. It is brighter now and where I stand facing the stove I can see across the ravine. Squirrels chase each other on bare branches. Even with the leaves fallen from the branches I see nothing but trees from this window. I hear a bird but don’t see him.

Coffee boils over the top of the ibrik, sputtering and steaming, drops dancing on the hot stove lid. I lift it quickly with my glove and pour it in a small clay cup on my desk. There is a trace of whiskey in the cup still from yesterday’s nightcap. That’s OK. I stir the mix with a little spoon, take a sip, sit down, and begin tapping on the keyboard. It is now 7:16, the day is getting on, and I only have so much time.