Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Hot Dog Blog

We take hot dogs for granted. They are a staple of summer and yet we treat them like a commodity. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could say that hot dogs are as different, one from another, as snowflakes but that would be overdoing it. That would be hot dogging it, another meaning of the word.  I could, and should, be labeled a hot dog for even suggesting no one wiener in a bun is like another. They are. Writing hyperbole like that would be showing off.

But while each hot dog is not unique there is considerable variety in hot dogs, our beloved American meal, and that is why I bring you the hot dog blog, a review of hot dogs available for purchase in and near my home town of Ottawa, Illinois.

I begin my quest for the most delicious hot dog in Ottawa at the corner of Main and Fillmore.

Tone’s Dog House

Ambience: Tone’s Dog House, not to be confused with Tone’s Cones an alley width away, is a one room building. In that room is a fully visible kitchen, a counter, four tall tables, eight stools and a drive up window. The floor is made up of large black and white tile and the whole place is sparkling clean. There are big windows on two sides and a lot of light. It’s a simple little place, which allows your focus to stay where it belongs; on the dog itself.

Presentation: The waitress gives you your drink at the counter but brings the dog to where you sit. She names the order as she slides it in front of you,

“Dog with the works.”

And there it is. Nestled within a little red plastic basket, on top of white wax paper, is a hot dog with everything.

Condiments: On the table, on either side of a packed holder of white napkins, was a generic squeeze bottle of regular yellow mustard and another of ketchup. Those of course are in the sub category of optional condiments. The real action is on the dog itself, and answers the question “What is included when you order everything?”

On one side of the dog, from one end of the bun to the other, they had laid down a single line, not fat not skinny, of regular yellow mustard. On the other side, between the dog and the bun, was a nice portion of sweet pickle relish, the dyed green stuff, from end to end. On top of both of them was a layer of chopped white onions and an equal amount of chopped tomato. The tomato was pretty pink, but it is after all, only May. Carefully spaced were three sport peppers, the little ones. Sprinkled over all was a generous amount of celery salt. And finally, face down and juicy, was a wedge of dill pickle, maybe a quarter of a whole slim pickle, maybe less. Eat the pickle first. It picked up some of the celery salt. It was cold, fresh, and good.

Bun: You have your choice of poppy seed or plain buns. I got poppy seed. The Tone’s bun can best be described with three adjectives: warm, soft, and wonderful. You might add a fourth and call it pillowy, but I don’t want to get crazy here. Tone’s may have the best buns in town, in terms of bakery items only of course.

Dog: Vienna all beef wieners anchor the hot dog at Tone’s. It’s a small wiener, tasty, steamed, well cooked but with snap. It doesn’t overwhelm the condiments, but rather blends in. You know it’s in there, but it stays in the background.

The whole deal: Really good. Hard to fault any part of the Tone’s Dog House experience. The hot dog was so good I went on to have the chili dog. But we’re not reviewing chili dogs today. I give Tone’s Dog House four sport peppers.


The damage: Medium fountain Coca Cola (free refills but you have to ask), hot dog with everything $3.62.

Triple J Ice Cream

Ambience: Triple J’s is what Tones would be if the ice cream and hot dog operations were combined, a soft serve ice cream place with hot dogs, but not as crowded. It’s been a lot of things, that little building on Columbus right next to the I&M canal. When I came to town in the 70’s it was Wally’s Dairy Dream. Since then it has undergone lots of transformations, but this one appears to be making it. Triple J’s has a nice patio by its brick front with outdoor seating and four tables inside, those brushed steel pedestal tables. The dining area is clean and white with windows on three sides. You can look out on the bank of the canal and see reeds growing. You can look at the ice cream equipment right behind a long counter but the sandwiches are cooked and made behind a partition.

Presentation: The day I was there the joint was staffed by a single person who disappeared when she made my hot dog. I ordered a medium coke and a hot dog with everything which confused her.

“What’s everything for you?”

“Whatever you’ve got. The works.”

“You mean Chicago?”

“Yeah, Chicago.”

“OK then.”

Very quickly she brought a dog to the counter in the familiar fake woven red plastic basket with the white waxed paper, the Triple J Chicago Dog. The Triple J hot dog is advertised in the window as “Red Hot Chicago-Pure Beef Products”. A rival to Vienna all beef wieners I assume.

Condiments: There is a formula I guess for Chicago dogs fixings. Triple J’s dog was topped with fresh chopped onions and chopped pale tomato. Alongside the dog was a wide stripe of regular yellow mustard on one side and the green dyed sweet pickle relish o the other. You could see a smattering of celery salt. The pickle, bun length, hid two sport peppers. Big ones. It was nearly deja vu all over again. I picked up the pickle and it drooped. It was somewhat translucent where it was thinnest on the edge and not exactly cold. Not much crunch to that pickle. And I didn’t taste the celery salt.

Bun: No choice of bun at Triple J. It was the standard white hot dog bun and although it was fine, it could have been fresher and softer. A little heat would have helped it I think.

Dog: The dog was tasty, but it lacked snap. I want to feel my teeth go through the wiener casing before sinking into the mushy middle of the dog. I didn’t much feel that. I asked the waitress if they steamed their dogs and she was very frank

“We used to do them in a crock pot but they split sometimes, got too big. Now we boil them to order.”

My dog was served so quickly I’m not sure how she boiled it to order but that’s the story and I hate to cast doubt . And it is a good tasting dog. But something was off. It was too soft.

The whole deal: Truth be told the Triple J hot dog was a lot like the one I ate at Tone’s Dog House but not as good. The Triple J dog lacked balance. There were too few tomatoes and onions for my liking and not much celery salt. The mustard dominated the dog a little too much. And the sport peppers, being large, were tough and hard to bite through. They fell off. Any good dog experience involves spilled condiments, but it is hard to get the right amount of sport pepper in the mix of a mouthful if you can’t bite through them and they end up back in the basket. I give Triple J’s three peppers

*** (seems apropos for a place named Triple J)

The damage: Chicago hot dog, medium coke in a white Styrofoam cup with lid and straw $3.58.

P.S.-I had the small twist cone before I left, half vanilla half chocolate. Tasty.

Red Dog Grille

Ambience: Nautical and upscale. Red Dog Grille is the former Tracy’s Boat House at Heritage Harbor marina, which serves both the boating crowd and the public at large. When you sit at the Red Dog Grille, inside or out, you view the interior lagoon with the boat slips and big boats of those who both live there, permanently or on weekends, and those who dock their boats there just off the Illinois River. It’s a nice place, great at sunset, with the summer sun setting just beside the concrete grain silos to the west. I went there thinking they had changed the restaurant concept from the full menu of tony items available at Tracy’s Boat House to snacks and small meals like red dogs, as in red hots, a pseudonym for hot dogs. Au contraire. Red Dog refers to someone‘s favorite, and I assume dead and revered, Irish setter or an otherwise beloved red dog. Pictures and a small statuette of the canine adorn the eatery. If anything, the restaurant has gone tonier. It’s nice in there, not much different but touched up and made more comfortable and attractive. To be fair, we got there on the third night the doors were open, before the formal grand opening. Lots of wait staff and few patrons. It was sort of a shakedown cruise. My wife wanted to order the fish tacos, her old favorite still on the menu from Tracy’s, but went with a fancy burger instead. I ordered the one third pound hot dog.

Presentation: As I say, the restaurant is just getting off the ground and I hesitate to judge. But what they’ve done to the hot dog is something I think they may want to reconsider. Look at this.

What you’ve got there is a big hot dog split down the middle lengthwise. Split down the middle. It is lying on a bun likewise split into two pieces, separated by a big steak knife, and accompanied by a full setting of silverware and a cloth napkin. They serve it with three small fluted bowls of condiments. It was garnished with lettuce and a slice of orange. I looked up at the waitress when she put it in front of me. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. She was terribly friendly and attentive. I expected a hot dog. And a slice of orange?

Condiments: In the little ceramic bowls were a spicy jardiniere (heavy on the olive oil), spicy mustard, and ketchup. On the mutilated sausage was a pile of chopped onions. No tomatoes. They included a fine spear of dill pickle, but it was too late. Nothing could save it.

Bun: Who knows what the bun was like? You couldn’t see it, or feel it. It was flattened and spread out under the split in half dog. The juices from the dog were soaked into it. Had it been whole it may have had a chance. It was reduced to two skinny pieces of pale bread.

Dog: The dog actually had a good flavor, despite losing all its juice after being tortured, drawn not quartered. No dog should endure that kind of treatment. It was probably a wonderful wiener, a fine frankfurter as it were, before it was destroyed in the kitchen. There is no way to evaluate a hot dog so desecrated as that dog was.

The whole deal: I still don’t know what to say. I tried to put the poor thing back together and eat it with my hands as a hot dog should be eaten. The oil from the jardiniere ran through my fingers. The onions fell out the bottom of the bun. The mustard mixed with the olive oil and oozed out as well. It was a mess. I finally dropped the whole thing back onto the plate and began to eat it with my fork and yes, the steak knife. The fork went through the exposed part of the wiener but the skin coupled with the bun underneath was hard to get through. I used the knife. I almost didn’t want to be seen eating a hot dog that way.

Let’s remember, this was prior to the Red Dog Grille’s grand opening. Perhaps they were experimenting. Maybe they’ll get enough feedback that they serve it the way hot dogs were intended to be served; as a whole sausage, a complete and integral link of finely ground meat of unknown animal parts that retains its dignity, in a sturdy bun that holds both it and the condiments so you can get that classic hot dog bite. It’s a big dog. It would probably take six bites. Served correctly with some tweaks it could be good. We’ll never know. I can’t give it even one sport pepper. Consider it a work in progress. I don’t think it qualifies as a hot dog. My wife loved her burger. Let’s move on.

The damage: The hot dog, if you can call it that, was $6.00 by itself without tax or a drink. I had a craft beer. I needed two. But I was performing that night. Another story.

To be continued…

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hot Dog Blog delayed

I haven’t posted to Dave in the Shack for nearly a week. I’m working on a hot dog blog and have run into a snag. I’d like to say it is due to circumstances beyond my control, but that’s not true. When you write and self publish a personal blog you control everything.

The hot dog blog I’m planning requires extensive research i.e. eating hot dogs in various places and paying attention. I’ve been doing so almost daily but one of my intended dog stands, made famous by its mere presence, the pure art of its existence, is not open. I’ve gone by repeatedly. No sign of activity. I can hardly go on without it.

I’m talking about Grumpee’s Weenie Wagon, the collection of orange sheds and vehicles on the west side of Route 71 between Route 80 and Dayton Road. It’s the classic, maybe the ultimate of local independent hot dog stands. Typically it operates in warm weather, spring to fall. I’m itching to put it up against its competitors using the criteria I’ve developed. But I can’t. There’s a problem. Although the sign says open it is closed up tight.

It was dangerously close to a crime scene. We don’t have a lot of crime in LaSalle County relatively speaking. I mean, compared to Cook County LaSalle County is practically Eden. We forget that bad things happen everywhere varying only in frequency. What allegedly happened in Grumpee’s neighborhood is pretty bad. Grisly in fact. If of course it’s true. I had a former State’s Attorney on my board of directors who reminded me to always use the adjective “allegedly” until judges or juries determine actual guilt. I’ve found it to be a healthy viewpoint, and so I do.

The alleged victim of this crime died in a pole barn north of Grumpee’s there, behind an old falling down conventional barn. The barn was definitely falling down, not allegedly. And it is officially down now, being cleaned up along with the pole barn now that the yellow crime scene tape has been removed.

The alleged victim, definitely deceased, was running a truck wash business in the pole barn in question and allegedly came into some type of conflict with the alleged perpetrators who not only allegedly killed him but tried to dispose of his body by burning it, or so the newpapers asserts. This all happened just north of Grumpee’s. I pulled through a gravel lane off Dayton Road that takes you to the legendary hot dog nirvana. A pick up truck was parked between the old recently razed barn and the pole barn. A young guy with his dog came over to my car, asking me what I wanted. He looked perturbed that I was there.

“What do you know about Grumpee’s?” I asked.

“Well we’ve had some trouble here you know.”


“Yes here. This shed was being rented by a man operating a truck wash…”

“That was here?” I had read the news story in the local paper.

“Right there in that shed.”

“I thought it was over on Dayton Road past the Pet Smart Warehouse closer to 23.”

“Nope. Right in there.” He pointed to the tall metal door, slide open, revealing a dark shadowy interior. A man walked out the door with boards in his hand.

“Right in there huh?”

“Yes sir. We’re cleaning up the property, including this old barn. The owners have decided to sell it.”

“I see.” His dog smelled the front wheel of my Buick and peed on it.

“How about Grumpee’s?”

I knew it sounded minor, compared to alleged murder, supposed dismemberment, and rumors of an amateurish cremation. But hey, I have a blog to write.

“Grumpee and his staff had nothing to do with it.”

“I didn’t think they did. I just wonder if they’re going to open this season or not.”

“It was quite a shock to them. I’d wouldn’t look for them to open for a few weeks yet.”

Them. I always thought of Grumpee’s as a business run by a single person who was not particularly happy.

“They’ve got to lay in supplies and such and I haven’t seen them around. For obvious reasons.”

“Yeah. Obviously. Sorry for your trouble here. Thanks for the information.”

The serious look on his face persisted. Being in the vicinity of an alleged murder scene will do that to you I guess. For some reason he reached through my car window and shook my hand.

“You take it easy now.”

“I will.”

He held on to my hand a little too long. After he let go I started forward but his dog was in my way.

“Don’t worry he’ll move.”

Believe you me, the last thing I wanted to do was run over that dog and add to the misery and alleged death hanging over the area.

I went down the road a hundred yards or so and turned into the Oasis. I’d promised my wife breakfast. I’d already had a hot dog at the Road Ranger across from the Oasis earlier in the week. And since Grumpee’s was closed I thought I would try to salvage something from the trip.

The Oasis once anchored that Interstate exit location. Now it’s a sad second to the Road Ranger across the road. Their gas is cheaper. Oasis is a Shell station/truck service place/restaurant. It’s seen better days. Next to Road Ranger are vacant buildings. Stuff has been torn down across the road. As it turns out Interstate exit establishments come and go, ebb and flow.

Take the Interstate exit just to the east of 71, the Marseilles exit. At one time they had a gas station and a good restaurant. The gas station is long gone and the restaurant appears to be little more than a poker machine place. The tall two pole interstate visible sign that once marked the restaurant is now blank and twisted. It went up during a nice renovation of the restaurant which later emerged as TACO TIME. Good tile floors, nice Mexican décor, OK margaritas. That was long ago it seems. What makes cars stop stopping? Better places down the road I guess.

The Oasis didn’t have a hot dog on its menu, not that I especially wanted one. Oasis biscuits and gravy always call to me when I drive past on 80. I don’t think I’ve been in the Oasis for ten years. It has changed little, just more empty. Still open 24/7, clean, roomy, good waitresses, weak bad truck stop coffee, heavy cups. I had a half order of biscuits and gravy, two eggs sunny side up on top, and a glass of milk in addition to coffee. My wife had the Popeye omelet.

The Popeye omelet is a good way to illustrate the character of the Oasis restaurant. Most joints serving a vegetarian omelet with spinach work “Florentine” into that menu item evoking the fancy Italian mystique of Florence. Not the Oasis. They go for the old sailor cartoon. Popeye in trouble, pipe in his mouth, struggling to get the spinach can out of his pocket. When he does, opening it creatively and slugging it down, he’s rejuvenated and ready to beat the hell out of Brutus or whoever is the villain du jour. The Oasis wouldn’t serve some snooty damn Italian Florentine omelet. For them it’s the Popeye.

I didn’t have to remind my waitress to bring the milk although I often must to others. Told you they were good waitresses at the Oasis. The biscuits and gravy were as delicious as I remember, nice chunks of sausage buried in thick white gravy, all made better by the soft sunny side eggs. Break the yolks and they run into the gravy, making it all the sweeter. That’s the way I used to have them in the 80’s when I lived for a short time in Wedron. The Oasis was an anytime and often stop. Cheap gas, cheap food, always a lot of activity. Times have changed. But The Oasis, though its glory is faded, goes on.

I perused the trucker section of the Oasis, which is on the other side of the bathrooms and completely separate from the restaurant. They have a service desk just for truckers, and shelves full of trucker gear for sale. It’s all scaled down from the past. I checked the food section. There on the smallest roller grill I’ve seen so far was one greasy glistening hot dog turning slowly between the hot steel rods. Next to it was a single taquito. Trust me, you don’t want the last and only hot dog on the roller grill. I passed. The Oasis will not be part of my hot dog blog.

My wife drove home. Having been once again denied the Grumpee’s Weenie Wagon experience my hot dog blog remains incomplete. Tone’s Dog House, Mr. J’s, Triple J Ice Cream, Thornton’s, Red Dog Grill, Road Ranger, and Marathon have all been sampled and rated by a carefully thought out set of criteria. But Grumpee’s, the potential king, the piece de resistance, remains out of reach. So it goes.

What a difference a couple of years make. Prior to retirement I wrote each week on social issues and heartfelt emotions surrounding the lives of real people. And now I flippantly throw all that aside for hot dogs. I guess I’m fitting in to mainstream America again. Yet a man died, allegedly murdered, on the outskirts of Ottawa.

Robert Dowd, 47 rented the building I drove past this week and began a business called Rob’s Wash Outs. On April 14th two acquaintances, Jonathan Beckman 21 (who also worked at the Oasis) and William Horman, 48 allegedly had an argument with Dowd following Dowd’s refusal to make Horman a partner in Rob’s Wash Outs. They allegedly killed him there at the truck wash, took Dowd’s body to his trailer on the west side of the Fox River in Dayton, and stayed for a day or more allegedly burning Dowd’s body on a burn pile near his home. They are reported to have used buckets to carry ashes from the burn pile to the Fox where they dumped Dowd’s remains into the river. If convicted of murder, Beckman and Horman will mark the first LaSalle County murder convictions since May 2011. They appear separately before Judges Ryan and Raccuglia on May 7th and 8th.

Serious stuff, all taking place three miles from my house and a pitching wedge away from the counter in the orange shack where I hope to soon order a hot dog at Grumpee’s Weenie Wagon. And what do I plan to write about after I have that hot dog? Interpersonal violence? Senseless death? No.

Hot dogs. I’m going to write about hot dogs. What’s happening here?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

George Washington and the King of Spain

Sometimes you sit on tantalizing facts or records of events, hoping you have the opportunity to insert them into something larger you are writing, and it never happens. I’ve tried fitting them in before. Later, rereading the piece, it’s apparent the tantalizing bit is awkward. Out of place. Forced. Reluctantly I take them out. They are good little things, but they fit nowhere, and end up hidden somewhere on the hard drive, unused, not worthy of a whole story to hold them. Like this.

After the United States won its independence from England and George Washington was named the country’s first president, the King of Spain sent him a mammoth jack as a present. A mammoth jack is a male donkey which is 14 hands or more tall. Political leaders, and everyone else for that matter, were closer to the land and appreciated agriculture and animal husbandry more then I’m sure, even kings and presidents. It is said that George Washington was immensely pleased, and put that jack to work breeding and creating both more giant donkeys and lots of really big and terrific mules. The DNA of that single mammoth jack can still be found in many of the donkeys, mules, and yes jackasses, of which there are many, in America to this day.

I learned this on a bus in Peru from a woman in California who keeps and breeds both horses and mules, and have been thinking about it ever since. She had taken a quick side trip to a Peruvian ranch where she saw that country’s signature gaited horse, the little Paso. That’s how we got on the subject. I thought it was fascinating. Having a nugget of a story like that is the equivalent of money burning a hole in your pocket. I know it’s trivial but I can’t help but tell you about it.

A mammoth jack 14 hands tall measures 4’8” at the shoulder. Most donkeys are pretty little, like Mexican burros whose rider’s legs nearly touch the ground, and nimble little donkeys strung together and used as pack animals. But 4’8” at the shoulder is a big ass donkey. I know that’s redundant but I couldn’t resist. What you have, if you possess a mammoth jack like George Washington did, is the potential to breed him with big horses and by doing so creating gigantic strong mules. Go to the Illinois State Fair, or better yet the Missouri State Fair, and you will see some really big mules which are the product of mammoth jacks and Belgian horses.

Belgians if you don’t know are big draft horses originally bred to pull plows and wagons as are Percherons and Clydesdales. Thanks to Budweiser everyone knows the Clydesdales from Scotland. They should be thankful they have that nice white feathered hair around their hooves, which make them superstars. Percherons and Belgians and others are equally big and strong. Of course now that farmers have tractors we rarely need horses like that, and keep them around for old time’s sake. Draft horses, which used to be the heavy lifters as it were on farms and in cities, are now pretty much a hobby, as are mules.

Back to the mules. Mules are the unnatural product of two species whose chromosomes don’t line up and who don’t breed on their own; those being a male or jack ass (donkey), and a female or mare horse. As an unnatural offspring mules themselves are sterile, unable to reproduce. Male mules are castrated, or gelded, to make them more docile, and female mules lack the anatomy to conceive and give birth. But jack donkeys and mare horses, that’s another story. Mule breeders make it happen. And it’s not easy. Even the mammoth jacks need help impregnating those big Belgian mares. Think well placed ditch which lowers the mare, or platform of some kind that raises the jack. Of course with artificial insemination, those worries are over. I was on the farm when we made the transition from Jersey dairy bulls and cows doing it naturally and artificial insemination which is something else entirely. But that’s another story.

If you go the other way on this equation, breed a jennet donkey to a stallion, the product of their union is a hinny. Hinnies, which you would think would be roughly equivalent to mules, are lower class and undesirable. Usually mistakes. Sometimes unethical breeders try to pass hinnies off as mules. How or why this whole hinny business is a problem I don’t know. You would think they would be roughly the same as a mule. But it is. I do know that as a practical matter, if you were a little jennet donkey you wouldn’t want give birth to a big horse headed hinny. On the flip side mare horses deliver the baby mule foals fairly easily.
Remember this whole business was not intended to be. Think genetically modified animals. Hinnies are sterile too by the way.

After we started inseminating our Jersey dairy cows artificially Dad decided to use Angus sperm with one of the bigger cows once a year to get better beef for the family when we butchered.

“Why just Angus Dad? Why not breed her to a Hereford or Charolais?” After all, we had catalogs with pictures of bulls, page after page of them. The world was our oyster so to speak when it came to animal husbandry. A whole new world of possibility had opened up.

“Have you seen the big heads on those Herefords and Charolais? Once in a while you have to think of the cow David. Would you want to push out a calf with a head like that?” Dad was a sensitive guy.

So why breed mules? Good question. I’m told that mules work hard. They combine the best attributes of donkeys and horses. My Dad had some experience with mules although his Dad farmed with horses as did he in his early years. He said mules were used more down South because they worked well in the heat. You could work a horse to death, and when you did it was usually from heat exhaustion. Horses don’t know when to stop. Working a horse to death was a disgrace. Not only do you lose the value of the animal, you were considered by your peers not only cruel but ignorant of your horse’s needs. Once in a while an old horse would drop dead during hard work understandably but work a young horse to death and you would never live it down. Mules on the other hand will stop when they get too hot. Refuse to work. Dad figured that cliché “stubborn as a mule” should be changed to “smart as a mule.” When they refused to budge it was often for good reason.

Nowadays mules are being bred not primarily as work animals but in all sorts of ways for different purposes. Breed a small jack to a pony and you get a great little mule for a young child. Breed a Mammoth or a regular jack with a quarter horse say, and you get an animal that is fast, a pleasure to ride, nimble on its feet, and can jump well. I know nothing about breeding mules but I do know about the donkey/quarter horse mule first hand.

We were camping on a family vacation years ago among the beautiful red rock and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon in Utah. We’d been hiking on the trails and the kids wanted to go further down on one of the long lines of mules they rented for that purpose. My wife, scared to death but wanting our kids to have the experience, insisted I go on the trail ride with them.

“Honey, they have rules for the mules,” I told her. “Riders can’t be more than 200 pounds.”

“Well you’re not that much over 200 are you?”

“Heck yeah I am.”

“Tell them you’re 200 anyway. The kids want to go and I want you to go with them. It scares me.”

Being dutiful, yet doubting I could pull it off, I approached the mule ride people to purchase tickets.

“Two kids, one adult.”

The cowboy in charge, hat, chaps and all, looked me over carefully. “Would that adult be you?”

“Yeah,” I said boldly.

“If you don’t mind my asking, just how much do you weigh?”

“Right around 200.”

“You wouldn’t mind stepping on this scale would you pardner?” He had a bathroom scale under the table which he slid out with one pointy cowboy boot. “It’s a safety thing for the mules you know. We have some big mules but even they can only haul so much up and down those steep trails. It’s about them keeping their footing.”

I stepped on the scale hopefully, but clocked in at 239.

“No offense sir, but I’ll just be selling you the children’s tickets. And if you’re worried about your kids, the young cowboys we got working this summer haven’t lost one yet.”

I went back and reported my failure to the wife.

“Well then they can’t go. I’m not letting them go down there without us.”

“Then you’ll have to go.”

“I can’t do that.” She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.

“Look, either they go without us or they don’t go. Trust the people running the trail ride.”

She nodded but I could see fear in her eyes.

That afternoon we reported to the corral with our tickets and watched as they began saddling up the mules. They were sleek nice looking mules of all colors and sizes. My son was the smallest kid on the trip, and they gave him a short dapple gray mule that looked terrifically bored. My daughter was on top of a dark, almost black mule, a little bigger, with very long ears and a little more spirit. My wife was anxious. One young cowboy could tell. He came over just to talk to her.

“Ma’am, we have three riders, lead, middle and rear, that control the string of mules. The mules know the way better than us. They do it twice a day, they’re sure footed, and gentle as lambs. Your kids will be near the rear and our cowboy back there will keep a close eye on them and their mules. You have nothing to worry about.”

When everybody was mounted up they formed the line and began making their way out of the corral and off to the canyon. Our kids smiled and waved. As the line was disappearing out of sight over a little rise at the canyon’s rim my son turned in his saddle and waved one more time. My wife and I waved back.

After the last mule went out of sight my wife broke down with huge loud shoulder shaking sobs. Letting go can be difficult. I held her until she stopped crying.

So there you have it: mammoth jacks, the King of Spain, mules, George Washington, hinnies, the pain of letting go, the whole ball of wax. Ball of wax? Why do we say that? You never know what you’ll learn next, do you?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Believe it or Not II

Two volunteers at First UCC church in Ottawa pair up and count the offering, one on the computer the other on the deposit slip, each Sunday in a monthly rotation. Another guy and I do the last Sunday of the month. Soon after we started my partner, a young fellow, said

“So how many of your blog readers unsubscribed after Wednesday’s post on religion?”

“None that I know of. I’m surprised. I really hesitated a long time before I pushed the publish button on Blogspot.”

His face expressed surprise; cocked head, arched eyebrows.

“Actually I got quite a few supportive comments.”

“You’re kidding,” he said. “I was worried you were doing yourself in. I started to write a long response defending you. Then I just stopped. I figured you would hear from people you didn’t know were there. So I just switched to a one word response.”

“I read it, Thanks. It came in early.” His response was ‘fantastic.’

My post last week on religion did not rely on structure, nifty description, or the unexpected phrase. It wasn’t an artsy bit of writing. It was pretty much a statement. Saying what I think. I’ve rarely been so declarative. I’ve tried to remain a farm kid in that regard. Farm kids keep their mouth shut a lot. Keeping your mouth open risks getting bugs and dirt, hay chaff, and any variety of shit in your mouth, depending on how many kinds of animals your parents raised on that farm. Best to breathe through your nose and listen.

Readers respond to my posts most often by commenting publically on Face Book. Some of you react privately by replying to an individually addressed e mail from me to you, or send me a private Face Book message. The least common type of response uses the comment section on the blog itself. However you communicate, everything comes to me. You don’t see the e mail replies or the FB Messages. Only the sender and I are in on those. You can see everything but that.

Occasionally I share comments, discreetly, to the wider audience. I try to be careful about that. I want you to feel as comfortable talking to me as I feel talking to you. Let me try to summarize what you said through all those vehicles about last week’s post on religion. It was pretty widely read, over 200 opens and still rising.

Consider it a tiny unscientific sample that means statistically nothing. But we like to read comments don’t we? A lot of you are friends. I don’t try to characterize you, the people that read Dave in the Shack, but you’re a pretty good group in a lot of ways. For one thing I consider you to be smart. Perhaps you are a bit on the old side, but you represent all ages. A lot of women read the blog, as well as men. I suppose we’re mostly white and middle class. I’m just guessing really. Here’s a smattering of what people said, edited only somewhat.

A woman attorney from Seattle in her thirties- “Great Read, Dave!”

A working Mom in the Chicago suburbs- “Love this!”

An old grade school classmate ignoring religion all together- “Cubs suck!”

A South Side Ottawa man- “Well, well, well. I like the shack’s writings.”

A woman living outside of town- “I’ve always been a Cardinal fan, and truly have a Christian faith. But I respect your thoughts.”

An old and wise friend- “Interesting and courageous. Thank you.”

A family member- “Good one Dave. Bravo.”

My brother- “Well said. I've been thinking like that for a long time. Maybe I'll talk more openly about it now.”

A fellow writer- “You are a brave man. I shy away from this topic but also see the need to cleanse. Sort of like a confession. I follow many of your same beliefs but remain confused about many areas.”

A good guy who should retire- “Damn Dave you knocked it out of the park! It reminds me that after I had my heart attack a neighbor, a very sweet woman, was concerned for my spiritual side. In conversation she told me that she would miss her dog when he died more than her mother because at least she would see her mother in heaven but not her dog. And there you have it.”

An accomplished business woman and kindred creed mumbler- “Many silently believe the way you do. What would happen if we all spoke up? Unfortunately it seems today it’s either this way or that way, you are either right or wrong. I like you would probably fail a litmus test for the “package of beliefs”. However there are some to whom the rules and the rituals bring great peace and comfort. Who am I to argue with that? Maybe that’s all we need. Whatever brings us peace and comfort, with no one being exactly right or exactly wrong.”

I got points for honesty, for writing it in the first place. But I was also challenged by more provocative comments.

A published writer and former missionary- “If there isn’t life after death, what is God’s purpose? It sounds as if there is no need for God.”

A recently retired human service agency director- “I believe the death and resurrection are what sets Christians apart and is central to the Christian religion. Most Christians do not believe in the creation as it is written. I disagree with you wholeheartedly on the Virgin birth, but I do not condemn you for it. If there is no after life, isn’t it more of a secular humanist bent that keeps you on track behaviorally speaking rather than a set of Christian beliefs? Thanks for writing from your heart and I agree with (your classmate) Cubs suck!

A smart and good family man- “As much as I disagree and believe this matter to be eternally serious, I think you are far better off being honest with yourself and to others than trying to carry on as if you believed things you really don't. What I really, really like is your conclusion on the "good person" matter and salvation. However, there are theological implications to be certain, and if people are good, then there is no sin problem in need of remedy. That so many Christians think that people are good bewilders me in that one wonders why Jesus had to come to die. Of course, if one considers Christ to simply be a very good example, one wonders why the Romans bothered crucifying him. :) You do well not to honor God with your lips while your heart is far from Him (plagiarism intentional). And on a completely different note, why do you think there is no heaven or hell?

I’m at a distinct disadvantage arguing religion. There exist big gaps in my life when I paid little or no attention to it. I have little knowledge of Bible interpretation. The scope of my learning about religion is severely limited. I read the Bible and appreciate it as ancient literature. I especially admire the writers.

Can you imagine writing when so few authors were published? To be able to chronicle the oldest tales told by robed people around fires and record the oral histories passed through families and communities. Or to be a psalmist producing tight little verses. Can’t you just hear the writer of the 23rd psalm talking to his closest friend?

“Been writing anything David?”

“As a matter of fact I have. Been thinking back to when I was a kid herding sheep. Lots of good metaphors available when you equate God to a Shepherd. It came out really well.”

“How about sharing a little with me?”

“Well it’s not quite done, but it goes like this: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”

“I like the adjectives Dave. Not just pastures but green pastures. Not just waters but still waters. It sounds peaceful.”

“Doesn’t it? It gets better.”

“He restores my soul. He leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil; for you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

“Whoa, It’s good Dave. You’re right. I like the ‘shadow of the valley of death’ a lot. But I’m confused about enemies. You couldn’t have had enemies when you were a shepherd leading those sheep through the pastures.”

“You’re right. I just used the metaphor. I have enemies now. I blended the past and the present.”

“Wow I really like it. It makes me feel calm. Is it done? Complete?”

“I think so.”

“You know you didn’t say anything about forever in there, about eternity. People really go for that. They like to think life keeps going. You might think about adding that.”

”Thanks. I will.”

They both paused. David went on.

“You know of all the things I’ve written I think this might be the one people read and appreciate the most. This one could be remembered a long time. It’s a good take on God don’t you think?”

“It’s definitely a good one. I think you may be right Dave.”

Yes, I think the Bible was written not by God but by people to explain God and later the prophets including Jesus. They used a new technology that later exploded when Gutenberg invented the printing press and spread the story worldwide. Were it to unfold now they might use Face Book and smart phones. It’s a long, old, jumbled, historical, contradictory collection of accounts of God, Jesus, and spirituality written, often beautifully, by human beings like you and me. At least that’s how I look at it.

Why must we believe in magic to embrace Christianity? One of the thoughtful responders to last week’s post conceded the story of creation, admitting most Christians no longer believe the biblical account of the creation. Of course not. We have the benefit of science. The writers of the Old Testament had no other explanation for the world they found themselves in and how it came to be. Yet he goes on to vigorously defend the Virgin birth. Why is that so vital to this story? I grew up on a farm. I knew from day one how new life was formed. Cows, sheep chickens, dogs and cats were procreating around me on a regular basis. Would it be so bad if Joseph was Jesus’ biological father, which he probably was? Why would that be a deal breaker? Would we think less of Jesus if he were conceived in the usual way?

Miraculous birth is not confined to Christianity. It is a common vehicle for giving humans on earth exalted status. The Hindus and the Buddhists have similar stories. Buddha’s birth is my personal favorite. His mother, Queen Maya, dreamed that four angels carried her high among white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant with a white lotus in his trunk walked around her three times, struck her on the right side and disappeared into her.

She told her husband King Suddhodana of the dream. His Brahmins interpreted it as meaning Maya would give birth to a son who would become the Buddha. As time for the birth neared, Maya wished to travel to her childhood home. A thousand bearers carried her palanquin on the journey. Along the way she stopped to admire flowering trees and as she reached up to touch the blossoms her son was born. She and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them, and the infant, walking erect and gifted with both speech and vocabulary at birth took seven steps and proclaimed. “I alone am the world honored one!”

Do you think the majority of Buddhists around world believe that story? I bet they don’t. Buddhists in my limited knowledge believe in humility and compassion. They exemplify and teach values which point to a way in which people can live in harmony with the world. Buddhism is a force in the world, a set of beliefs and concepts as are all religions, whose aim I think is leading human beings to lives that are better and more fulfilling.

The most poignant questions, the most salient points posed in your comments are these.

If there isn’t life after death, what is God’s purpose?

Why do you think there is no heaven or hell?

That so many Christians think people are good bewilders me. If that is so, why did Jesus have to come to die?

If there is no after life, isn’t it more of a secular humanist bent that keeps you on track behaviorally speaking rather than a set of Christian beliefs?

I think God’s purpose is to lead us to a better life, and to be there when we need help. I’ve turned to God when I could talk to no one else. Desperate prayer. To find you are not alone when you are in deep despair is a comfort like no other.

I don’t think Jesus necessarily had to die. I think he was murdered by a threatened government. I wish he had been able to escape, build a shack on the Galilee, settle down with Mary Magdalene, have kids, and continue to teach until he was old, like Mohammed. But that was not to be. But now I’m being provocative.

I don’t believe in heaven or hell because, in addition to being extremely crowded places and difficult to manage if they exist; I don’t think they are necessary. I think they were imagined by man as motivational devices. Do we live good lives because we fear being damned to hell? Conversely would we not love our neighbor if we were not rewarded with eternal life in heaven? I think we would and that we do. Living well on this earth is its own reward. I am kept on track behaviorally (how much I follow that track is the subject of significant debate) in large part by Christian belief, but not belief in heaven or hell, the virgin birth, or resurrection.

I believe in Christian ideas like these found in The Sermon on the Plain. The words are attributed to Jesus by a person (believed to be Luke) writing in a different language than ours hundreds of years later. Here’s how it translates.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you … And as you wish that men would do unto you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. …But love your enemies and do good, and lend, and expect nothing in return; and your reward will be great… Be merciful even as your father is merciful.
Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned, forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

I suppose we all pick and choose small parts of big things that suit us. But this one passage is almost enough for me. It’s a set of commandments, like Moses’ ten, but directives all the same delivered by a man reportedly talking to a group of people in a flat place a long time ago. They are much harder to achieve than those laid down by Moses. Thou shall not kill is pretty much in the bag for most of us. Turning the other cheek proves to be more difficult doesn’t it?

I’m much more worried about our collective human souls than I am about my own. I’ll risk your concept of hell if by concentrating on this world if I can achieve some concrete results here.

I wish Christians, and churches, would apply Christian values and use their energy to achieve peace and justice and end violence. I wish they would turn their attention to changing life on earth rather than focusing on the hereafter. Christians have a lot of work to do. So do Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews. We have problems. We need help. We need to feel we are not alone. We cannot despair. Maybe we need God.

OK that’s it. I’m declaring the Dave in the Shack religion series over, or at least suspended for a long time. Grumpee’s weenie wagon is about to open and I made a pledge during the winter to write a gourmand’s review of hot dog stands in the Ottawa area. Grumpee calls to me. A whole world of other possible subjects await. The Cubs are only one. Comment if you like on this one but I’m moving on. Thanks for your participation. This has been cathartic for me. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading. You’re a good bunch of people, in addition to being kind.