Friday, December 30, 2016

Answer Your Phone

Bad things happen in our own lives and the lives of those around us.  If we can, we protect ourselves by turning away.  We shield ourselves, if possible, from trauma, from ugliness, from imagined scenes we fear will turn to fact and haunt us.

I received a phone call from a friend now living out of town who was worried about another mutual friend.  In response I said

“Sure, I’ll go down there.”

In a few minutes I was pounding on the front door, a replacement steel door at one time added, along with vinyl siding, to a little old Ottawa house.  There were no lights on.  No one answered.  Our friend’s car was parked at the curb and covered in snow.  No wheel tracks.  The mailbox was full.  There were no footprints leading to the house.  The sidewalk and stoop were unshoveled.  How many nights ago did it snow?  How many days had passed?  No signs of movement from curb to the door.  No sound of movement within the house.

I walked to the back on the neighbor’s driveway.  Smooth snow covered the way to the deck, between the house and its little garage.  Pretty unbroken snow, sculpted, once more with no tracks.  Snow had fallen days ago.   Two days? Three?  The light from a streetlight glowed faintly in the back by the alley.  But from the house no light.  No sound.  I opened the back storm door and tried the knob.  It turned.  I opened it.

For a second I saw myself stepping in and yelling his name.  I almost did just that but then I stopped.  Not because I feared he had a gun, although I crossed my mind.  I feared what I would find.  I should have returned his calls.  His calls were so long and rambling.  My wife read the news item to me from the paper.  A DUI.  He had stopped calling.  Had not called me in weeks.  All through the snowstorm, the cold snap that followed.  Filled with shame perhaps.  Likely depressed and drinking more.  I didn’t want to imagine what he could have done.  But having done just that I didn’t want to see what I imagined.  I didn’t want those images to be made fact.  I turned away, like I turned away from his calls.  I went to the police station and talked to the dispatch officer in the lobby.

“I’m concerned about my friend.  He lives at ______ and I can’t raise him.  I got a call from people close to him out of town.  He’s not called important people in his life for some time.  He doesn’t answer the door.  I’m worried.”

“You want a well being check then?”

“Yes I do.”

He took my name.  He promised cops would meet me there.  They did.  They were great.  They shined their flashlights into his car.  I told them the door was open in the back and the tracks leading to it were mine.  We followed them, they shined their lights into the garage first, then into the back windows.

“I’ll stay here,” I said.  I stood on the deck.

“That’s best,” a young cop told me.

Cowardly?  Perhaps.  I listened as they entered the little house, three of them, flashlights blazing.  I heard them call out.  I had told them his name.  They called out twice.  Time was moving so slowly.
I didn’t hear his response, only their reply to an unheard voice.

“Can we come down there then?” I heard a cop say.  I knew then he was alive.

Did he have a basement?  Where was down there?  In a minute, perhaps two, the three officers came towards me, flashlights lit.

“He appears to be OK.  He’s on the couch in the front, in the living room.  I told him your name and he said he’s willing to talk to you.”

“Thanks.  I wasn’t sure what I might have found in there.”

“I know.  Better we go in than you.  Glad to help.”

They left.  I walked down the long hall.  Down there must have referred to the length of the hallway.  It’s a shotgun house, long from front to back, at the front door a living room, a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom off it, kitchen at the rear.  I could barely make him out in the darkness.

“______, people are trying to get in touch with you.  You aren’t answering your phone.  They called me.  They’re worried.”

“I’m right here.”

“Can I turn a light on?”

“Of course.”

I switched on a floor lamp.  I hadn’t seen him in a month or more.  He was even thinner.  A cheap thermal blanket was bunched around him.  A big couch pillow had a dent in it.  He had been sleeping, or simply lying, inches from the hollow steel door I pounded on so hard and long.

“You didn’t answer your door.  The back door was open. But I was scared.  I‘m sorry I called the cops.”

“It’s OK.  I’m glad to see you.”

“Where is your phone?”

“I have it here I think.” He fumbled in the pocket of his hoodie.

“Is it dead?  Let’s charge it.”

“I don’t think it will do any good.  My service was cancelled I think.  Along with the internet.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think so.”

“OK let’s use my phone.  Let’s call _____.  He called me.  He’s worried.”

“Now?”  He looked genuinely puzzled.

“Yeah.  Talk to him.  He’s your friend.  He’s worried.  e;’s worried.  He’s worried Let him know you’re all right.”

I punched in our friend's number.  ______ looked at my phone as if it were a moon rock.  Then he heard something and put it to his ear.  He began to talk, flippantly, carefree, as if he was planning a trip to the beach.  I heard but one side of the conversation.

“__________ my man, whassup?”

He paused and listened.

“Just, you know, staying in with the weather and all.  Takin’ it easy.  Watching movies.  Nothing special.”

“___________?  I just talked to her didn’t I?”

“ Really?  She says it was three days ago? That can’t be.  I’m sure I talked to her.”

“Yeah.  Well of course I believe you, I mean if that’s what she told you.  I just think she’s wrong.  She gets nervous.  I tell her not to worry…”

“Yeah, OK, I promise.  I’ll call her right after I hang up.  Yes I will.  And yes I am.  I am fine.  Don’t worry about your old buddy ________.”

He hung up and looked around the room blankly.  Unopened mail covered the coffee table.  There was an empty can.

“Where were you earlier?  When I knocked on the front door?  You must have heard me.  I’m sorry to have called the cops but I was worried. To be honest I was afraid you might have hurt yourself.”

“I’ve had people knock on my door that had the wrong house.  I’m sorry I didn’t answer.  I might have been in the shower.”

He paused.  His eyes were bloodshot and his clothes were rumpled.  He looked bad.

“Sorry but you don’t look like a guy who just got out of the shower.”

He ignored that.

“Thanks for worrying about me.  I may be depressed but hurting myself or someone else is nothing I would ever do no matter what.  Really.  Don’t worry about that.”

“OK, but I’m worried about you anyway.”

He looked at me for a long time but didn’t respond.

“You eating?  What’s this can here?”

I picked it up and read it.  It was Ensure, a prepared protein drink.

“I had that a while ago.  I had a hot dog too.”

“You been sleeping?”

“I don’t sleep good.  My dreams wake me up.  I have pretty terrible dreams.”

“The DUI?  What about that?”

“I wasn’t drinking.  The numbers on the machine were nuts.  I tried to tell them it was just my medication.  I said to the cops “You blow in this machine, I bet it says you’re drunk.’ It can’t be right.”

He looked at me with a pained face.  Beseeching might be the word.  Plaintive.  Wanting terribly to be believed.

“When’s your court date?”

“I don’t know but it’s written down on the ticket.  I got that somewhere.”

“You’re going to need an attorney.”

“I’m getting letters.  They must read the paper.  Everybody in the county wants to defend me.”

“How about your kids?”

He hung his head.
“I want to see them for Christmas.  They’re supposed to come over.”

I looked around.  A Christmas tree was in a bag on the floor.  Cardboard boxes were stacked all around.

“What’s with the boxes?”

“I’m going to move.  I got to sell this place.”

“Do you have money still?”

“Not much.”

“How about I pick you up in the morning and we go to breakfast.  Take a shower and change your clothes.  I’ll be here at 9:00.”


“Yeah.  Let’s get you out of here.  Maybe come up with a plan.  You’re a social worker that needs a social worker.  You know how to do this.  You’ve done it for plenty of people.  I’ll bring a pencil and a yellow pad.  We’ll get started.”

It’s human nature to protect ourselves.  Besides that it’s the holidays.  We want bright colored lights and presents.  We want to reaffirm love with family and those most close to us.  So yes, we protect ourselves.  We turn away from ugliness.  We shield ourselves from possible trauma.  It’s natural I think.  But we can, any of us, help those who hurt.  All you really have to do is show up.

My friend got help and continues to make use of it.  Those of us who care for him, and there are many, hope he reached the bottom  (if there is such a thing), is on his way back up, and finds his way to better days.  It’s hard to do alone.
Consider answering your phone when you would rather not.  Better yet reach out to those around you before they call.  We need each other.  It’s natural to turn away but rethink it.  You could make a difference.

Happy New Year.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Artificial Calamari revisited

I was out with my wife for drinks and an appetizer in downtown Ottawa at the Lone Buffalo and the place was jammed. The Lone Buffalo touts itself as a provider of quality locally sourced and freshly prepared food and drink and makes good on that promise. But as we scanned the list of small plate options I was reminded of this appetizer inspired story from years ago. I got the idea for it listening to an intriguing episode of This American Life on NPR. As a farm kid who helped raise livestock, and now the father of a young woman with a degree in food science, it was too good to pass up back then. Likewise, it’s too good not to repeat now. As you celebrate Christmas in the bars and eateries of your choosing, be careful out there.

I was reminded of this radio broadcast while looking at a package of Pacific Cod at Kroger. I’d never heard of Pacific Cod. I figured it was a made up name capitalizing 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 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.

Intrigued, I bought the Pacific Cod. I baked it and found it not as firm, not as tasty, as Atlantic Cod but not bad. Still curious I looked it up on the Internet. Turns out no one agrees on what to call this product. Some call the 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 shiftiness in food labeling is nothing new. They even have a name for it. Surimi, the fine art of disguising one fish as another, and it 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), might eat Snow Crab and King Crab into extinction but we’ll never, they say, run out of Pollock and Whiting.

What caught my ear that day 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 whereever 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? And from pork? I was intrigued.

This was an episode of This American Life that seemed somehow whimsical. Lots of background music building fake tension. I went back to the This American Life website and listened to the whole podcast again. You can do that too by going to and registering at the site and diving into 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 credible sounding manager and a friend of the farmer willing to go on the record, replied "Bung. It's hog rectum." For clarity, Calhoun adds "Rectum that can be sliced into rings, deep fried, and boom, there you have it."

The farmer, who confirmed the story, chose to remain nameless, and declined going on record with the reporter about the incident because his girlfriend warned him that his name being forever linked to pig rectum in Google searches. Smart man. But 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.

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.

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 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 there’s a two edged sword if there ever was one. To get the hams in your sausage links you have to take the unsavory parts 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." And if you were a food purveyor in China, sending product to the U.S., you could certainly 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 a solid on the record informant, 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 feces, 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 on 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 wire frying 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 it’s because that’s the way life is some times. Many times actually. 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’s chaired by Bob, the owner and 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, hired to give the company a boost in social media among other things. Alice, Bob’s secretary, notes. The meeting starts with a report from Art, the food scientist.

“Well it’s no secret that my staff and I have been developing an exciting new product, and I’m happy to say I’ve got solid information today to share with you about it. I think this is a terrific opportunity for our company. But we’re at a point where I need your input and frankly your help. This product 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 often 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.


“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.”

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

“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.”


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 looks wrinkly?” Gary asked.

“Miraculously, it straightens out when it cooks. Takes the exact shape as the squid.” Art said.

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 intestine. 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
“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 discount calamari by twenty percent and still take a huge profit on this artificial stuff. I’m telling you, this can work.”

“You’re all nuts!" Stephanie said.  "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.”

Bob, usually calm and in control at these meetings, erupted.

“Alice stop taking notes.”

“Jesus Christ Stephanie, 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. With a B. If we capture even ten percent of that market…OK, maybe it doesn’t sell well here. But if we can boost sales overseas to get a ten percent share, that’s a hundred million dollars. A hundred 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 I’ve got one of the best management teams in the business. Now if we just work together, we can overcome the image difficulties this product presents and meet the challenge.”

Stephanie sat back in her chair and folded her arms in silence. Gary looked at Art, then Bob. The silence was becoming uncomfortable. Gary 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 pig's ass?” she said.


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 you go soft on the facts and instead create  a story?  God its fun.  Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Catherine McClure’s Peanut Brittle

My sister in law Sheryl, Darwin’s wife, was my cooking teacher Friday.  Darwin wanted me to come down the day before but I was busy.  He was worried about the weather.  Sheryl had to take one of their granddaughters to an appointment and wouldn’t be home till ten.  They were calling for snow or something else to start in the afternoon.  Danvers is about an hour away.  I woke up later than I wanted, forgot the stuff I was going to bring them, made a thermos of coffee and still got there by 8:30.  That gave Darwin and I a chance to talk.  And we did.  We had a mutual political rant.  We’re on the same page politically and commiserated mightily about national and state politics.  It got loud.  It went something like this.

“Can you believe, this and so, and what they did?  Jesus Christ!”

“No I can’t.  It absolutely makes me this and that!  And on top of it, what about this other?”

“I know!  The dumb bastards.  What are they thinking? ”

“I have no idea.  What’s going to happen next?  Nothing good I don’t think.”

“Me either.”

Slowly the political talk cooled and we began to talk about family; our kids, his grand kids, the extended family, what everybody is doing.  It was a sweeping review of nearly everybody, taking up news from around the country and beyond.  Then I steered the conversation to the past.  I’m writing about the past, a collective past Darwin was part of, and I need to know when things happened in our lives.  It’s the kind of thing we don’t think of often.  Darwin made the switch, started putting events into the order in which they happened, matching years with those events, and I began taking notes.  Before Sheryl got home I tucked a valuable sheet of notes, a sort of timeline, into my bib overalls to take back to the shack.

When Sheryl got there she was all business.  The night before she had laid what we needed out on the counter by the stove:  raw peanuts, the candy thermometer, big sack of white sugar, two bottles of Karo syrup, baking soda, butter, table salt.  She had a saucepan on the stove.  The recipe was lying beside it.  I checked it out before she arrived.  It started like this.

3 cups white sugar
1 cup Karo white syrup
¾ cup warm water
Combine in a large saucepan, stir, heat on high.  Stir occasionally.
After a hard boil, reduce heat to three quarters.  Cook slowly to 280 degrees.

It was straightforward.  I considered starting without Sheryl but thought that unwise.  Best to let her take me through it because recipes, I’ve learned, never tell the whole story.  Like this for example.

“What do we do first Sheryl?”

“Butter the pan we’re going to pour it on.  You can get busy cooking, have it all ready, turn around needing to pour it out right away and if you haven’t buttered your pan its trouble.  So butter the pan.  And it has to be butter.  No oleo, no spray.  Butter.  Lots of it.

Sheryl was using a thick aluminum cookie sheet.  Mom used a chunk of dark marble, broken on one edge, from who knows where.  She would put it out on the porch and let it get cold.  Sheryl is not so sure cold is good.  She thinks that may speed up the cooling too much.  Anyway we don’t know where that chunk of marble went and Sheryl’s oversized cookie sheet works fine.  We slather it with butter.

“OK now you put the ingredients in the pan in the order they’re listed; sugar, syrup, and water.  You measure out the sugar.”

While I did that Sheryl poured out a cupful of that thick Karo syrup.  Has to be the white, not dark.  Sheryl used a little rubber spatula to get it all out of the measuring cup.  I made a note of that.  She added the water.

“Now you have to stir and nobody told me this but I’ve had better luck heating it slowly.  You can keep it on high till it boils, but then you have to turn it down and go slow till it gets up to 280 on the candy thermometer.  If you heat it too fast it gets funny when you put the peanuts in and turns out different.”

Some things you don’t understand, you just take a trusted one's word for it.  We patiently waited for the thermometer to rise.  Sheryl turned her electric stove top down to 7.  I had that figured for about medium high on my gas range.  Somewhere in there.  It’s an inexact science.

“I put the two cups of peanuts in a bowl so I can pour them right in the second it hits 280.  When the peanuts go in the temperature drops, then comes back up.  But you got to keep going slow to 305.”

She took a very close look at the thermometer.  I shined a light on it with my phone’s flashlight feature so she could see better.
“Where’d you get that?”

“It’s part of my I phone.”

“I don’t have a smart phone.  Mine is still a dumb phone.  Got those two cups of peanuts ready?”

She was still looking at the thermometer in the hot sugary brew.

“OK we’re there.  Pour them in.”

I poured in the peanuts and Sheryl immediately started chopping at them with her wooden spoon.

“I sort of chop these things in the mix.  Somebody told me once you don’t have to do this, that they separate anyway, but I just chop up and down and move them around to be sure.”

Sheryl was going after those peanuts.  I checked the thermometer and it went down to about 270 before it started coming up again.

“It won’t be long now.  Get that soda and salt ready.  I mix the two together and poke around on it making sure there’s no lumps.  Put it in that little half cup measure.”

She motioned with her head towards a little orange cup next to the peanuts.  I consulted the recipe and began to measure the soda.

Add 2 cups raw peanuts to mix
Cook to 305 degrees
Remove from heat
Add 3 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt

“That’s not enough soda,” Sheryl told me.  Actually she sort of barked at me.

“Says three teaspoons.  That’s just one.”

“They got to be heaping.”

“Doesn’t say heaping.”

“Yeah, well that’s the trouble with recipes.  Sometimes they don’t tell you everything.  The soda is real important.  I don’t know if the salt matters much.  But I didn’t used to use enough soda I don’t think. That or I stirred it too much and all the air went out of it.  You’ll see, the soda is what makes it expand and get airy.  Light kind of.  Some people’s peanut brittle is dark and almost glassy.  That’s why I always liked your Mom’s best because it’s light.  Real crisp and good.  That’s cause of the soda I think.  That and I don’t stir it too much.  I just stir it while I turn from the stove and walk to the counter where the cookie sheet is, then I pour it right away onto the sheet.  It works good.”

With that Sheryl took over and put three heaping teaspoons of plain old Arm and Hammer baking soda into the cup with a level teaspoon of table salt.  She was careful to press the lumps out of the soda and blend it together good.

“It’s almost to 305 David.  Now watch.”

When the temperature rose to the right number Sheryl took out thermometer, slid the pan off the heat, poured in the soda salt mixture right away, and spun around with the pan in one hand and a spoon in the other.  As she walked to the buttered sheet she stirred the soda around and around.  When she was standing in front of the pan she poured the mix straightaway onto the pan, from one side to the other, and scraped the sided of the saucepan quickly, getting all the hot sugar and syrup onto the buttered sheet.  I thought it would run off the edge of the pan but it stopped miraculously, like hot fiery lava stopping its slow advance just short of a church.

“Now you wait till its right.”

“How do you know?”

“You just have to know.  I’ll show you.”

Women in my family say that kind of thing about cooking all the time.  My Mom got disgusted when people asked about details she thought were obvious.  It was as if she thought everyone knew what she knew.  I once asked her how long she cooked the oysters in butter, the liquid they came in, and salt before adding them to hot milk mix for oyster stew.  She looked at me as if I were absolutely ignorant.

“Oh for God’s sake.  You just know.”

“No you don’t Mom.  You have to be judging it by something.”

She thought for a moment.

“OK then.  See those little black lines, that sort of layered fleshy skirt at the edge of the oyster?”


“When those start curling, getting wavy, they’re done.”

“Thanks.  Was that so hard Mom?”

Sheryl was more forgiving than Mom.  She explained that the people who didn’t make peanut brittle anymore found this part to be the hardest.  They can do all the rest, she explained, but they can’t pull it apart right.  Either the mass gets too cool and hardens, ends up a thick brick, or they burn their hands pulling it apart too quickly.  There’s an art to almost everything.  Knowing when to pull apart the peanut brittle seems to be the most critical and hardest to figure step.  I took a picture of Sheryl while we waited for her to declare the stuff ready to pull.

She kept feeling the edge.  Pushing it up off the pan and watching how fast it fell back into place.  Feeling the heat.  Pulling it slightly.

Here’s what the recipe says.

Let cool till edges harden.  Stretch into pieces on a flat surface and let cool completely.

“How about time Sheryl?  Like, let rest five minutes or something.”

“That doesn’t work for some reason.  Either the pan is cooler or warmer, or it’s cooler or warmer in the house or something. But it doesn’t exactly depend on time.  It depends on how firm the edge is, and how hot the batch is.  Look at that now.  See how it thins when you pull, stretches and sort of tugs along the stuff behind it?  That’s what you’re looking for.  Put some butter on your fingers and let’s pull this.  You pull your side I’ll pull mine.  Once we get the edges pulled we’ll wait for the middle to cool a little and then we’ll pull it.”

It was hot.  You couldn’t keep your fingers on it long.  We pulled hunks off the edges, pulled the hunks again to make smaller thinner pieces, let the pieces lay on the formica counter, and pulled more.

“Now keep moving those pieces around as they cool so they don’t stick hard to the counter.”

I did as I was told.  Then we pulled the middle same as we did the sides.  There were more peanuts in the middle.

“I wish I knew how to get the peanuts more uniform all over.  But people eat the pieces without the peanuts too.  It’s all good.”

Then we were done.

Sheryl got out a round plastic ice cream tub. When the pieces cooled we put them in the container.  She advised me to keep the lid off for a while to let the candy both dry and cool.  The pieces would stick together less.  She also told me not to leave the tub uncovered.  Too much air or moisture can make the pieces stick together.  We’d done a batch.  It was delicious.  It’s been a while since I ate Mom’s, but it was as good as I remember hers.

“OK.  That one is yours to take home.  Now you do it again for practice.  The newt one’s for me.”

I repeated the whole deal.  Darwin had retreated to the living room and CNN.  He got disgusted with news regarding a politician about to take office and turned it off, retreating to a novel. 

When the next batch was done and after we cleaned up and Darwin and Sheryl announced they were taking me to lunch.  They’d gotten a gift certificate at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration earlier in the year and were waiting for an occasion to use it.  Darwin drove to a good place in Congerville called The Mercantile.  Homemade food and pies.  In Congerville these days it’s pretty much that place and the post office, a seed corn company and the elevator.  Riding over the blacktops on the way there I got to drive by farms I’d worked on or otherwise had a connection to fifty years ago.  I remembered people and events I hadn’t thought about in a long time. 

When we came out of the restaurant, rain was freezing on the windshield.  We got back to Danvers as quickly as we safely could and I started home.  Darwin worried about me again, wanting me to call when I got home.  I did.  I thanked he and Sheryl once more for a nice day.  Seeing family over Christmas is almost as good as homemade candy.  It’s a toss up.  And then maybe family and homemade candy are so tied together you can’t tell them apart.

I'm trying the home made caramels next.  Sheryl told me how to cut them and showed me how to make the wax paper wraps.  Evidently the hard part of making caramels is stirring it continuously.  Sheryl let me in on her secret stirring technique.  I'd try to make divinity but we've lost or never had Mom's recipe.  I don't know anyone that makes that from scratch anymore and neither does Sheryl.  Maybe you can help us out.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Change, peanut brittle, and other winter topics

Saturday came early for me.  I woke up early and rather than lie in bed I got up.  The thermos of coffee I made for my trip to Chicago Friday was on the counter where I left it.  I realized it was there yesterday at about the Marseilles exit, too far gone I thought to circle back and retrieve it.  Too much time would be lost.  I seldom have those kinds of restraints anymore, not that I heeded them much while I was working, but I wanted to get to this meeting on time.  I thought it was important.

Having a thermos full of lukewarm day old coffee meant less time in the kitchen before I made it to the shack.  I had a bowl of Wheaties, my two daily pills, and headed out the back door before 6:00.  I felt as if I needed this time with a blank white word screen.  What used to be intimidating is now comfortable.  I’ve gotten that far at least.

As I walked into the building, formerly housing a dairy which bottled and distributed milk on the South Side, now a social service agency where Friday’s meeting was being held, in East Beverly close to Morgan Park, I was lucky enough to encounter a staff member going to work.  She got me through the locked door, guided me to where the sign in sheet was, and welcomed me to her agency.   When she inquired why I was visiting I told her I was going to be in a meeting with Audra, who I assumed (correctly) was her executive director. 

“You mean Dr. Audra?” she said.

“Really?  I didn’t know she has a doctorate.  To us she just goes by Audra.”

“That’s because she’s cool,” she said with a broad smile.

When I walked into the shack this morning it was cold.  The shack had not been warmed by a fire in its little stove since late Thursday, so it was cooled down completely.  My water jug in the corner with the hand pump had ice in it.  I cranked on the electric space heater under the desk with my mitten still on and started building a fire straightaway; half a brown paper grocery bag, slivered pine on top, a chunk of oak, some corn cobs, one match.  I wait till the wood crackles before I add more oak and even then I have to restrain myself.  My tendency is, being greedy for heat, to overload the stove which can choke out a fire still building.  I added my first extra oak about 6:10 and poured coffee in a tin cup on top of the stove to heat it.  It is 6:35 now and I’ve turned the space heater off and taken off my coat and fingerless gloves.  Still have my scarf on though.  The computer is slow when it’s cold.  You have to have more patience in the winter, that’s all there is to it.

The meeting in Chicago was important because it was about organizational change.  Organizations can hum along for years on a particular model, way of operating, set of assumptions and beliefs, reliance on particular partners and cooperative agreements, formal or otherwise, but it’s rare when all that can stay the same long term.  Any outfit has to change in small ways all the time to keep up with technology and the world around it, but there are times when it has to deliberately make significant change happen which is outside the norm.  That’s what was going on at this meeting. It was only one meeting in a process, but this was a critical meeting in that process.  I was glad to be part of it because I believed I could contribute.

The guy I sat next to, a busy exec who had to be on a conference call during lunch, asked me what was new.  I just say what pops into my head now when people ask me that.  Sometimes I think I do that just to hear how my life sounds out loud.
“I’m going to learn how to make peanut brittle.  My Mom made great peanut brittle and my sister in law learned from her.  She’s going to teach me.  I’m excited about it.”

It was an honest and true statement.  I am very excited about it.  The guy, a good guy and smart, with the interests of kids and families solidly lodged in his thinking, looked at me with a bit of surprise, then smiled. 

“I love peanut brittle.  I have no idea how you’d make it.  I hope that goes well.”

I don’t imagine he’s thought of making peanut brittle in some time, if ever.  I know how that is.  I was the same way.  Too God damn busy.

The dawn this morning was strikingly uneventful.  The sky was black, I could not see past the light shining on the ravine from the shack’s glass east wall, and then by degrees it brightened and turned gray.  There is no wind and you cannot see the sun.  Drab.  And the cold?  It’s all relative.  I often check the temp in Red Lake, the area in Northern Ontario where I go fishing in late summer.  This morning it was -19 there.  It would take a lot longer to get the shack warm if it was sitting near Red Lake.

I could have talked about my writing I suppose when my friend asked me what was new rather than peanut brittle but it’s a hard topic for conversation.  I talk about it mostly to my wife and a very few friends, one of them a writer himself.  I write and edit like I always have, but more recently I’ve begun to rewrite, arrange, and package.  I do that every day as I have for some time only now, in the past month, I am starting to see it come together in a tangible way.  I think I’m onto something that could be publishable. Whatever it might one day be called it now has a table of contents, a word count, a structure, some bones so to speak.  I’m making progress.  Things are changing here, meaning here inside the shack, which is very personal space.  Writing is a very personal thing, lonely at times, hard to talk about.  But after all, it is made to be read right?  Spoken sometimes, like poetry, but not so much this stuff I’m writing.  Read quietly I think is probably better.  Hopefully thought about as well.

I used to see my Mom making peanut brittle, probably walking through the kitchen on my way somewhere else, interested only in eating the finished product.  My Aunt Lou helped.  For a while there we made taffy and hard candy with the Twenty family who lived close.  I remember them and my folks handling very hot wads of white sugary stuff, folding and refolding it, pulling it out into cords on the kitchen table, pressing red peppermint and green wintergreen stripes into them, cutting them into pieces.  It was a big deal, the candy making.  Lots of laughs in the kitchen.  Those farmers had a way of entertaining themselves that could be lost if we don’t watch out.  That may be one of the reasons I’m spending time learning to make peanut brittle.

Come to think of it the other places I devote time to these days outside the shack; volunteering at my church and a couple other local not for profits, are intentionally creating change within themselves.  I think I may be drawn to change.  I’ve heard myself say words to that effect in meetings, that change is energizing and studying the past does little more than draw our attention away from the future.  I have a feeling I believe that, and wouldn’t be involved to the degree I am with things outside the shack were it not for the promise of change.  It’s good to realize those things about yourself from time to time. Those kinds of realizations can make you satisfied with how you spend your days.

After the meeting broke up I cruised the neighborhood.  Like so many parts of Chicago I had never been there.  I didn’t have long to explore because I had to get back to Ottawa to cook at church, but as I drove around I learned this: you cannot talk about any one side of Chicago as a single thing.  I was at 103rd and Vincennes, deep on the South Side, and it was a very livable neighborhood, obviously cared for and invested in.  With care and investment in both buildings and people couldn’t the whole South side be full of livable neighborhoods?  I understand it is not universally so now.  I may be a farm kid but I’m not na├»ve.  Correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t care and investment what is required to make the South side or the West side universally livable? Why isn’t that happening?

Those are my thoughts and that is my report on this cold Saturday morning.  I have other stuff to do.  Later today I’m going to some deal they’re having in the downtown Ottawa park, then driving with friends to attend a Christmas sing along at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago followed by dinner at a North side restaurant, where we will no doubt pay too much for dinner and convince ourselves we had a fantastic meal.  Speaking of meals we’re serving one tomorrow at noon at Open Table church that is absolutely free.  Turkey noodle soup is on the menu at Second Sunday Lunch for anyone in the community at 910 Columbus where it borders Jackson.  It’s going to be tasty. 

I’ll tell you how the peanut brittle turns out.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The 96 LeSabre Reappears

My old workplace reaches me still in odd ways.  I was forwarded a letter from YSB sent by a local auto salvage yard, reporting that in their possession was a 1996 Buick LeSabre, with VIN number, and if it was not claimed in 15 days it would be junked and sold for scrap.  It was my old white LeSabre.  I remember it well.

Back then, around 2010, YSB was still accepting and giving away cars, though not many.  Clunkers for Cash and the recession pretty much wiped out our fledgling program.  Years earlier a foster parent/car salesman and I put the idea in motion after he called me about his sister and her Buick Skylark.  The conversation went like this.

“Listen Dave I’ve got an idea.  My sister is trading her car in on a new one and it’s in damn good shape because she let me help her maintain it.  Anyway, we can’t give her much in trade in, and what she gets means less to her than if she could take that money as a tax deduction.  Unlike me she’s got money, has her house paid off, has no deductions, and pays a lot of taxes.  Besides that I know someone who needs that car, and you do too.”


“Mother of those kids my wife and I had in care this spring.  They’re home and she’s working, walking across the river over a mile to a fast food job.  I see her with her kids and a couple of red wagons hauling their laundry to the Laundromat.  She’d be a great candidate to get a car.” 

“How’s this work anyway?”

“Well it works a lot better than Cars for Kids which accepts cars, sells them at auction for a little of nothing, gives the money to some kids’ charities, and take a fee for handling them.  The money means way less and has much less impact than poor families owning cars, especially where this is little or no public transportation.  My sister’s car doesn’t have that many miles.  For someone driving to work and the Laundromat it would last damn near forever.  And think of what it would mean to that Mom and her kids.  They’d be a family like every other in town with a car.  That has value way beyond what the car is worth.”

“Sure does.”

That Mom had four kids.  I could see them in a car already, all smiles.

“What do we do?”

“You take the car and write my sister a letter thanking her for a donation of $4,500, tell her worker to make sure she buys liability insurance and has a license , I take care of the title transfer and plates and all, and we give it to her.  Simple as that.”

I loved simple things back then.  Still do.  I yearned for grassroots programs without paperwork, reports, cash flow problems, supervisors, disgruntled staff, and audits.  Nothing beats straightforward understandable basic help.  As soon as he described the process and I accepted the idea the program was born.  No flyers, little marketing, no frills.  The foster Dad and I, along with a very pleased YSB worker, did all those tasks within a week.  The Mom was amazed there were not more strings attached.  And the kids were ecstatic.  As she drove away from the office they were screaming from the back seat.  It’s a small town.  I saw her on the street in that car for years.  It always made me smile.

That was the first of many give away cars.  I wrote a blog about it.  The community began to realize we were an option for used car donations, and when they understood that we passed them on to provide transportation for local families, I think it meant something to them.  We picked up our second car from a retired teacher who had taken it away from her Dad who could no longer drive.  It was a high mileage but sweet running Oldsmobile Delta 88.  My secretary and I went to her house to get it and I took the donated car back to the office to see how it drove.  That one was a beauty.  The next problem was deciding who got the cars.  I’d put out an e mail to staff asking they recommend worthy recipients and get flooded with requests.

The original concept included having my car salesman/foster parent screen the cars to make sure they were sound but I often got carried away and said yes before he could see the car.  I accepted a 1982 Volkswagen Passat sight unseen from a local guy I halfway knew.  When we went to get it had a lot of rust.  When I drove it back to the office I noticed the front end was wobbly and the steering felt loose.  The engine didn’t sound good either.  I called the foster Dad/car guy.

“Hey I got a Volkswagen yesterday I need you to take a look at it.  It may need some work.”

“Volkswagens don’t need much work before they’re useless.  The parts are expensive.”

My car guy was not a foreign car aficionado.  He's GM all the way.

“I’ll come down over my lunch hour.”

He came in the door at 12:10 and got the keys.  My car guy is a man of few words and is known to form opinions quickly and voice them bluntly.  Straight talk coupled with a good heart made him a great foster parent.  His wife complimented his skills, and they provided a really good experience for a lot of kids.  I was so sorry to see them divorce.  But that’s their business.
He was back at 12:15.  When I looked up from my desk I could see he had something of importance to communicate.  Before I could speak he did.

“That car’s junk.”

“We can’t pay to fix it and make it worth someone’s while?”

“I wouldn’t give that car to my worst enemy.”

“That bad?”


I said nothing.
“You were going to let me see these cars first.  That was the deal.”

“It sounded so good over the phone.”

“Yeah well that’s why you got me.”

“Now what?  I can’t very well give it back.”

“Give me the title.  I know a guy can make it go away.  Just be more careful in the future.”

I was.  I loved giving away those cars.  I’d been driving cars like that my whole life.  Most Americans tend to think when a car racks up 100,000 miles it’s a liability.  Maybe that used to be true.  But these days cars will last more than double that if you change the oil.  I’ve made it a point to buy good cars, Buicks with a particular engine, the 3.8 liter V-6, that have around 100,000 miles.  The price drops steeply right then.  I have bought cars like that for twenty years.  I haven’t made a single car payment in all that time and go everywhere I want.  Newer cars are nice I hear, but I don’t want one.  The car I drive now, a 2006 Buick Lucerne with heated leather seats, is one of those cars.  I bought it at 97,000 miles after I retired.  It now has 105,000 and runs like a top.  I’ve driven it to Florida twice.
The 1996 LeSabre was an older earlier version of that same high value cheap car.  However at only 160,000 miles I thought about making a change.  I had bought it four years earlier and though it had many miles left in its life I was ready for a new one.  That Buick had come in contact with several fixed objects at close distance, all at low speed mind you, due to some optical problems I was experiencing.  After taking it to my body shop guy for the third time, this time after a much too sharp left turn leaving a parking place and a subsequent collision with a street sign pole, my body shop guy, also a man of few words, looked at the peeled back sheet metal starting at the headlight and extending into the front wheel well and said

“That’s messed up.”

“I know.  Can you make it look halfway decent for not a lot of money?”  I don’t buy collision coverage on these cars.

“No.  I can either put it back together and make it look good for a lot of money, or for not much money and a lot of bondo I can put it back together but it’s never going to look good.  Probably not halfway decent.  I’ll do my best.  If you don’t mind my asking, how’d you manage this one?”

“Does that really matter?  Just fix me up as cheap as you can will you?”

The 96 LeSabre had cloth seats, lacked a number of modern features, and although it had served me well and was mechanically sound I thought it prudent to part company with the car.  It wasn’t just the cosmetics, there were too many bad memories.  That and I was going to have some eye work done, improving my odds of avoiding future collisions.  So I gave it away.

My staff selected a single mother for this car who had quit drinking, gotten her kids back, and had put together a real shot at making good on a second chance at parenting.  Maybe third.  In any case her worker was pulling for her, and convinced me my car would give her a real boost.

It was 2010.  My foster parent/car guy had found a nearly stunning 2000 beige LeSabre for me with lots of good accessories, including that feature where the radio keeps going after you shut the car off in the garage.  For me it’s the little things.  As the 96 LeSabre pulled away with another elated Mom and her kids, I felt this time the personal satisfaction of being the donor.  Everything at YSB changed soon after that and frankly I forgot about that car.  Until I got that letter.

Fast forward six years.  I’ve been retired for almost four of them.  I considered ignoring the letter but someone I know, this time a family member, needs a car.  ‘What are the chances that old Buick still runs well?’ I thought to myself.  I decided to go see.

Aging and the passage of time are funny.  When you experience something up close every day; people, animals, buildings, or in this case cars, it is hard to notice them changing.  But when big chunks of time create gaps of familiarity the difference can be striking.  Dramatic even.  Seeing my old white Buick was a shock.

I had put that LeSabre through difficulty, but nothing compared to what happened to it subsequent to me.  It obviously encountered something of significant size and weight most likely at a high rate of speed, and apparently head on.  It was shocking.  A picture would better communicate the extent of the trauma my old Buick had gone through after it left me.

Though my old car was obviously of no use to me or the relative I was considering giving it to I went inside the salvage yard to see if I could make their job of junking it any easier.  I was also nosy to find out what happened to it.  The woman at the desk gave me a rundown of what she knew.
“How did you find me?  Was my name still on the title?”

“It was next to last.  The owner never responded.  We’re just doing what we have to legally to junk it.”

“You need me to sign anything?”

“Nope.  We just try to locate the owner as best we can.  Find someone on the title.  This one’s a no brainer, not worth the towing and storage to do anything with it.  Do nothing, and after the required time elapses we junk it out to get it off the lot.”

Because I hadn’t seen him in a long time, what with my car running fine, I went to the car dealership to consult with my old friend the foster Dad.  There he was, behind a desk doing what he does, selling a couple a car.  He told me later he’d met them at a restaurant or somewhere, got to talking, and before he knew it they were asking him about used cars.  God only knows how many cars he’s sold.  Somehow he makes you feel good about spending all that money.  They looked pleased at the transaction, he kept smiling, and as I waited in the showroom I did the Trib crossword.  I had no interest in the new cars parked around me.  I finished the puzzle and started thinking about my history of cars.  Except when I was traveling and living outside the country I’d rarely lived without one, mostly because I hardly ever lived in America where public transportation was available.  Cars mean freedom to farm kids.

At 16 I began driving my Dad’s GMC pickup with a three speed on the column.  I bought a two tone 63 Ford Galaxy with my own money, a 61 Galaxy, the Austin America, drove my Dad’s truck again, then a 1970 Torino with a 351 Cleveland engine which Jim Tapen sold me for $75 when he hired me as an advocate at DCFS.  I later gave it to a kid on my caseload who was marrying his pregnant girlfriend.

After the Torino I moved on to a cosmetically challenged 66 Bel Air purchased from Joe Garcia for $37.50.  He bought it for $75 with the stipulation that each time it passed hands the price be cut in half.  Rather than sell it for $18.75 I simply gave it to Habib, a friend I met in Morocco who somehow made it to the Illlinois Valley.  None of those cars lasted a long time, but they were fun to drive.  It’s liberating driving a car with little value.  What can go wrong?Sometimes you have more money in your billfold that the car is worth.  They’re expendable.
Soon after briefly owning an ill advised Volkswagen I finally upgraded to a 1973 Toyota Corolla, going over the $1,000 price plateau for the first time.  It was so reliable.  The body rusted terribly while its engine lasted nearly forever.  I had steel plates welded onto the floorboards because I was afraid my kids would fall through them.  Following the Toyota came a great deal on an ugly Oldsmobile Cutlass Brougham with a serious roof liner problem, followed by my Mom’s 81 Malibu after she passed, and finally this current string of high mileage great value Buicks.

I try not to get sentimental about cars, because they’re objects and tools, transportation devices in the end.  I did however keep Mom’s Malibu too long.  It had linkage problems, lacked intermittent wipers and didn’t even have cruise control.  But once in a while when I drove it I felt like Mom was with me and it relaxed me.  Work was crazy then.  I needed relaxing.

My car guy friend finally finished with the satisfied new owners of a great or semi great used car and came to see me.

“Something wrong with the Lucerne?”  He has a great memory.

“No, its running fine.  I wanted to show you one of my old cars.  One of the ones we gave away.  Look at this.”

I brought up a picture on my cell phone that looked like the one below.  I turned the screen towards him.  He immediately made a pained face and looked away.

“Oh shit.  I hope nobody got hurt in that thing.”

“Both air bags were blown but I didn’t see any blood on the seats.  And it would have soaked in.  They were cloth you know.”

“Yeah I remember.  You were holding out for leather and I told you it was such a good car it was no time to get picky.  How’d you find out about it?”

“The salvage yard sent me a letter.  Police had it towed here. They told me it was in a bad accident in your town.  Main Street.  Four cars involved.  Either that car or one it hit ended up on top of another.  DUI they thought.  I couldn’t find anything in the paper about it.  Said it happened in August.”

“I’m telling you I’ve seen this car regularly for years.  The woman you gave it to was still driving it not long ago.  I bet if it was a DUI she wasn’t driving it.  She attends meetings faithfully.”

My friend is an alcoholic who has been sober for most of his life now.  He’s in his sixties.  He turned it around.

“When did we give that thing away Dave?”

“Title said 2010.”

“Six years ago?  Can it be that long?  It had 160,000 when you gave it up and lasted another six years?”

“It didn’t end well though.”

“No, but so what?  Forget how it died and look at all the miles it gave the people that drove it.  Twenty years worth.  That car doesn’t owe anybody a damn thing.  We should all be as useful and helpful as that Buick.”

We shot the breeze for a while catching up.  He’s still sick of the paperwork in the car business, which he says is worse, and now made more complicated by the computer.  He wants to get out if he can afford it, retire, and ride his motorcycle.  He’s just a little worried about retiring.

“You ever miss what you used to do?”

“Once in a while.  But I get over it.  You’ll do fine.  Talk to a financial guy.  I bet you can swing it.  Really.  Don’t wait.”

I want my friend take the trips he so often talks about.  Ride his bike to where it’s warm when the Illinois Valley turns cold.  He has simple wants.  I hope he retires soon.  He doesn’t owe anybody anything either.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

These Days

An old friend, who owns a cornfield, raked cobs off her land after the harvest, dried them, and bagged them up.  Another friend who lives close by hauled them to town and brought them to the shack where I found them, delivered while I was away, stacked neatly on my shack porch ten feet from the little stove where I will burn them.  It’s extraordinary really, the kindness of others.

As the weather cools I’ve been heating the shack the lazy way, first with a little electric heater under my writing desk to take the chill off in the morning.  Then as the days shorten, and stay colder longer, I’ve been burning pine scraps supplied by my brother Denny, torn up hardwood flooring from a remodel at the church, bits of oak, and now these local cobs.  When I think of all the cobs we burned on the farm, a mountain of cobs as big as the shack left abandoned each time we shelled out the crib, later lit on fire and reduced to a fragile mound of embers so hot you couldn’t stand within twenty feet of it, I lament the waste.  All those BTU’s, up in smoke. 

Cobs burn fast and hot.  They’re nice to start a fire with, or add to a dying fire to create a little more warmth at the end of the day before the story ends.  I’ll get into the oak soon enough.  It’s been drying for two years, this batch I have split and under the woodshed roof.  To fit it into my stove I must cut it once more into 5 inch lengths with the chainsaw.  I’ll do that in batches as I need it, then split them again on my stump in the shack to a manageable size.  You can burn a lot of wood on a cold winter day, and we have plenty of those ahead of us I’m afraid.  There was that big moon though before the cold set in.  But Leonard Cohen did not live to see it.  We go on, all of us, without him.

I can feel myself shifting gears again a week after the election.  I was in the polling place working as an election judge just seven days ago.  So much has changed in a week.  I was sad, and then angry.  I’m still angry.  Yesterday I watched CNN for the first time since election night, but only for a short while.  I really don’t want to see or hear from the President elect yet.  The trouble is I don’t do anger well at all. Just ask my wife.  Its best I lay low until I can somehow turn it into action.  I feel I need to be more politically active for the sake of my kids and those around me, the people at church, the people in the homeless shelter, minorities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees, the people that will suffer most from what will happen if we do not stand up as Americans and stop this.  It pisses me off that I have to continue to do it at all.  It feels like I’ve been doing it all my life.  But it is very apparent that I must.

In the meantime I’ve withdrawn to the shack.  I loaded my five disc CD changer with four Miles Davis CD’s and a Phillip Glass.  Not a lyric to be found.  I thought Miles would pick me up most but in this mood I’m in I most appreciate Phillip Glass.  One CD, six songs, all around 6 minutes long, with mysterious one word titles: Opening, Floe, Island, Rubric, Facades, Closing.

Philip Glass, now 79, is the son of Jewish Lithuanian parents who came to America to escape German oppression and helped other Jews escape.  His father ran a record store and promoted new music, often sending customers who entered his store wanting to buy Beethoven home with Bartok instead, with an offer to buy back the albums if they didn’t like them.  Philip developed a keen ear, studied flute at the Peabody Institute, mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago before going to the Julliard School of Music and concentrating on the keyboard.  He earned a Fulbright scholarship in 1964 and went to Paris where he studied composition with someone famous named Nadia Boulanger.  His early music was described as minimal, a label he moved away from.  Here’s how Philip Glass describes his music.

"I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I'd written through it and come out the other end."  He now describes himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures."
Despite his musical genius, he found it impossible to make a living from it. Apart from his music career, Glass operated a moving company with his cousin, sculptor Jene Highstein, and also worked as a plumber and a cab driver from 1973 to 1978.  On top of all that he is a first cousin once removed of Ira Glass, the NPR hero of "This American Life."
Philip Glass is the best composer you've heard and don't know.  He's won three academy awards for film scores, written operas, chamber music, symphonies, collaborated with countless artists (including Leonard Cohen) and has a body of work that extends to nearly form and genre.  One single CD, "Glassworks", recorded in Tokyo in 1982 made its way into the weird musical collection of this dairy farmer/social worker holed up in a cedar sided shack alongside a Midwestern ravine.  I don't know diddly about music.  But I knew immediately when first hearing Philip Glass' music it was like the ocean; open, forgiving, honest and beautiful.  When I heard it again this week I knew why I randomly picked it from among my jazz CD's.  It brings me in and calms me down.

Not that I wanted to calm down.  When I get angry like this I mostly want those around me to just shut up.  Unfortunately what I want is usually counter to what they need, which is to have someone listen.  When bad things happened at work I would feel this way and search for some way to ward off staff who wanted to come in and discuss or “process” problems.  I grew sick and tired of process.  I abhorred process.  I literally thought I would puke if I had to involve myself in one more discussion to “process” some past problem or event.  If there is a hell, which I doubt, and it is personal mine would be an eternity of meetings where I sit and listen to others process problems.  I would nod endlessly and go insane for the rest of time.

I took a stab at curbing such work discussions with the parking meter.  The city was removing its parking meters and selling them for $10. I bought one and my brother Darwin mounted it on a pole for me.  I put it near the door in my office.  When my staff came in and said

“Do you have a minute?”

I answered in the affirmative, always, handed them a penny, telling them that in fact, I had twelve minutes.  In downtown Ottawa, a penny would allow you to park for twelve minutes.  I would then tell them to put the coin in the meter and twist the crank.  Then we would talk.  When their time elapsed a little red flag on the meter would noisily pop up, which was my cue to smile and politely tell them their time was up.  Twelve minutes seems like a long time but rarely did anyone end their conversation within twelve minutes and even more rarely were they satisfied with the outcome. I gave up on the meter.  It only made people mad.  

I fantasized about other control measures.  I kept my door open on principle but desperately wanted to close it and on it place a sign that would ward off all those who wanted my attention.  As a government funded private agency we lived in a sea of acronyms.  My sign, as an acronym, would say


You figure it out.

After I retired and was free to do anything I wanted, with no regard for tact, I considered making that same sign for my shack door, using my wood burning pencil and a piece of nice cedar, but now with the word “Welcome” on the other side for cheerier days, which I hoped would be more numerous.  But so few people visited the shack I concluded it would serve no purpose.  Good thing.  Though I no longer have cause to be overtly obnoxious, I still want to be at times.  Some would tell you I still am.  I find my feeling of wanting everyone to shut up persists, even when no one is talking.

Those bad moods can make for awkward and even painful days though my life now is largely solitary.  Take pity on my good and patient wife, who now bears the brunt of my private funks.  And thank you Philip Glass.  It was nice being with you for a time.  I needed that.  Listen a while.  Maybe Phil will calm you down as well.

You might also consider building a fire.  Click below

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Like all Wednesdays November 9th, 2016 is garbage day in my neighborhood.  I got up early to take out the trash and recycling.  I spent Tuesday in the Lion’s Club working as an election judge at my precinct.  It was a long 16 hour day.
I had breakfast, made coffee and headed to the shack.  There was frost on the shingles.  Because the time changed the sun was already up.  I walked through leaves.  I’ll have to get the mower out and chop those leaves up again before long.

The shack is perfect for a day like this.  I started a fire in the stove, plugged my phone into a charger putting it out of reach, and loaded the CD changer with classical music: Bach, Sibelius, and Strauss.  Next I turned on my computer and went straight to Word.  In Word I am safe from interruption.  As long as I stay out of Outlook and off Face Book it’s just me, the music, the warmth of the stove, the light coming through the trees into the shack, and words.  I want to finish a story I am writing about 1961.  It seems like a good place to be this morning, 1961.

I wanted Mom to let me stay home but she wouldn’t.  I was ten, Dad was in the field, and Mom had to go into Danvers to help prepare a meal at the church.  Someone died and they were going to feed their family after the funeral the next day.  Something like that.
“Margaret Melick is helping so Jeff will probably be there.  You can play with him in the park.”

The tiny Danvers park, a bandstand surrounded by trees, was next to the church.  Jeff was my age and we were friends.  But he didn’t come.  It was me and a bunch of old ladies in aprons talking all at once in the church basement.  I went upstairs, walked around the empty pews, played chopsticks on the piano, thumbed through a hymnal and silently played the good songs in my head.  Empty churches are big, quiet, and lonely.  I couldn’t stand it for long.  I went to the kitchen and found my Mom.

“Can I go down to the drug store and read comic books?”

The drugstore was a block away on Danvers’ only block of businesses.  The druggist’s wife ran the soda counter and if you bought a fountain drink, or even if you didn’t, she let you take comic books from the rack and read them without buying.
“Sure.  Here’s a quarter.  And while you’re there, go across the street and give Aunt Dorothy this on our bill.  She handed me a twenty dollar bill.  It was so much money.

“Don’t lose that.  And be there when I honk.  No exploring.  Just the drugstore and Aunt Dorothy’s.”

Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Harry ran a grocery store right across from the drugstore.  One honk from our 53 Dodge would work for either place. 

I was the only customer in the drugstore.  It was a summer weekday afternoon and hot.  I put my quarter on the marble counter, said hello to the druggist’s wife, and ordered a green river.  I always got a green river.  My friends got chocolate cokes, cherry cokes, phosphates, all kinds of fountain drinks but I always went for the green river.  The druggist’s wife had white hair done all up high with black hairpins.  As she pumped green syrup over ice cubes in a coke glass she asked what I was doing in town.


“You didn’t come all this way just to see me and buy a green river did you David?”

Danvers people want to know everything.  And I was over being called David.  I wanted to be known as Dave.  Not wanting to talk but knowing I had to I said

“Mom’s at church working on a ham dinner.”

“I bet that’s for the funeral tomorrow.”

“Yeah, something like that.” 

I smiled because it was polite and took my change and green river to one of two little tables they had by the comic books.  I scanned the rack.  They didn’t have many new ones.  I settled on a Jug Head comic I’d read before.
Sometimes when I was alone on the farm I’d think how good it must be to be a town kid so you could see other people more and go into places and buy things.  But when I got to town I realized it wasn’t much different.  If you really wanted to be someplace different you had to go to Bloomington.  But that seemed impossible.  We hardly ever went to Bloomington.  There was a Sears and Roebuck store there but we ordered things from the catalog that arrived to our big mailbox on the gravel road.  There was no reason to go to Bloomington.

I read a few more comic books, put my empty glass back up on the counter, was careful to say good bye to the druggist’s wife, and went across the street to the grocery store.  Uncle Harry was standing by the cash register.  He was tall and skinny with hollow cheeks.  As I came in the door he was shaking a Chesterfield cigarette from the pack he kept in his shirt pocket.  With the unlit cigarette dangling in his mouth he smiled and said

“Well if it isn’t my nephew Davey McClure.  What brings you to town?”

Of all my names I hated Davey the most.  I liked Uncle Harry but he could get loud and a little obnoxious.  But he was a Chicago guy.  My Dad said Chicago guys are like that, so we tried to ignore it when he was rude.  I figured he couldn’t help it.  He loved Aunt Dorothy and we loved her so that meant we had to love Uncle Harry too.

“Mom’s cooking hams at the church.  I’m just waiting for her to come get me.”

“Look out.  Farm boy in town.  You been chasing after the town girls Davey?”

I blushed.  It was things like that he said which we tried to overlook.  I acted like he hadn’t said anything.

“Is Aunt Dorothy here?”

“She’s back at the desk.  Cubs are on you know.”

Uncle Harry and Aunt Dorothy’s store was narrow but deep.  Two aisles.  It had an oiled wooden floor that slanted.  The shelves covered up the windows on one side, it shared a wall with the furnace and sheet metal shop on the other side, and the store room blocked light from the back.  The sun only made its way in through the front door and windows.  It was dark and smelled like old bananas.  I walked toward the back of the store. 

Aunt Dorothy smoked Pall Malls and always before she opened a new pack she slapped it violently against the palm of her hand.  I heard that slapping noise as I headed back.  When I turned the corner into the tiny little office, jammed with papers, she was just opening up the red pack of those long unfiltered cigarettes.   She was a little woman with a big smile.  She always had something good to say.

“What brings you here Dave?”

God bless Aunt Dorothy.  She was catching on to my new preferred name.  I reached into my pocket, pulled out the twenty, and handed it to her.

“Mom asked me to give this to you to pay on her bill.”

“Well isn’t that nice.  You tell her thanks.  Come here.”

I stepped up to her chair and she gave me a big hug.  Her breath smelled like cigarettes and beer.  I looked on the desk and there was an open bottle of Falstaff.   I’d seen her drink beer with Uncle Harry at their house but I didn’t know she drank at the store too.  We didn’t keep beer at our house.  I heard Lou Boudreau’s voice coming from her little transistor radio on the desk. 
“So what are you doing Aunt Dot?”  My Dad called her Dot sometimes so I did too.   I was studying ways to make conversation.  I listened for how people did it.  ‘What are you doing’ was one of the starter questions I was trying with people. 

“I’m supposed to be writing checks but I can’t keep my mind off the Cub game.  They got a chance to win this thing.”

“This is the last game with the Phillies isn’t it?”

“No they swept the Phillies three games.  This is the second game of a double header with the Pirates.  They won the first game 11-4.  Then damned if they didn’t take the shortstop, Banks, out of the lineup.  I don’t understand.  They were ahead 2-1 in the middle innings, now they‘re behind 4-2.    We need a base runner and a homer.  They’re on a roll.  If they win it will be five in a row.  I think they’re going to tie it up.”

“Why do you think that Aunt Dot?”

“I just do David.  I feel it in my bones.”

She forgot to call me Dave that quickly.  Aunt Dot got very excited when she listened to the Cubs.  She took a big slug of Falstaff.  The beer must make her optimistic I thought.  I looked at her face as she stared at the radio.  I couldn’t tell if her teeth were bigger or her gums were smaller but something looked bigger about her mouth.  She looked a little old.

“Who’s pitching for the Cubs?”

“Jim Brewer.”

“Dad says they always lose when Brewer pitches.  Isn’t he 0-5?”

“Yeah but he’s kept them to only four runs today.”

It was August 17th and the Cubs were playing in Pittsburgh.  There were eight teams in the National League and the Cubs were in 7th place.  The Phillies were in the basement and the Pirates were in 6th place.  Cincinnati led the league.  Chicago would finish the year in 7th place with a record of 64 wins and 90 losses. 

Lou Boudreau was talking and I had looked past Aunt Dorothy at the stuff around us.  On one side of the tiny office cardboard boxes were stacked tall; Wheaties, Chesty potato chips, Quaker oatmeal, Uncle Ben’s converted rice.

“Thank God, Tappe is pinch hitting for Don Zimmer. Zimmer can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

On the other side were cases of cans, Chef Boyardee spaghetti, Del Monte peas, Welch’s grape jelly, Peter Pan peanut butter.


Bob Will quickly struck out in the top of the 9th to end the game.  Aunt Dot sat back in her chair with a look of exhaustion and lit a Pall Mall.  I felt bad for her.

“They won four in a row Aunt Dot.  That’s pretty good for them.”

“Yeah, David but they do stupid things.  It’s bad enough they have mediocre players but on top of that they do stupid things.  It makes me so mad.”

“Dad doesn’t expect them to win as much as you do Aunt Dot.  Course he works outside and can’t listen to the radio like you.  He reads about them in the paper.  But he doesn’t get, you know, upset.  He just shakes his head.”

“Yeah well your Dad’s a good Cub fan but he looks at things differently.”

I knew that.  I tried to figure out how Dad looked at things.  It was hard.  He didn’t say much about how he felt.

“Aunt Dot can you tell me about being in Chicago?  I mean I know you and Dad and your family lived in Chicago but I can’t picture it.  What was my Dad like in the city?”

“He really liked Chicago David.  He would explore, and find places, and take us all there.  Ask him sometime about the Italian guy’s basement.  He’ll know what you’re talking about.  He was brave.  He went everywhere.”

She took a big pull on her Pall Mall, held it a while, and exhaled.  A cloud of smoke wrapped around her head.

“You know we were farm kids, your Dad, Aunt Fern, and me.  Even your Uncle Eldon, though he’d been in the city longer.  After your Grandpa was killed in a car accident our Mom had to sell the farm, and we all moved up to Oak Park.  Uncle Wick helped us get decent jobs.  Good thing too, because the recession hit and we were still OK.  But I didn’t think your Dad would ever go back to the farm.  Yep.  Chicago taught us to be Cub fans and Democrats.  And your Dad is the best of both.  You know how much I love your Dad right?”

“Yeah I know Aunt Dot.”

“Go get yourself a bottle of pop.  On me.”

She reached in the middle drawer of her desk and handed me a dime.  I didn’t tell Aunt Dot I’d just had a green river.  I went to their cooler, one of those where the bottles stood straight up in cold water and you slid them upright through a track of parallel rods to a place where you could pull one out after you put your dime in.    I bought a Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer.  I went back to where Aunt Dot was still sitting, recovering from the Cubs loss.  We clinked bottles-her Falstaff and my root beer.

“So you really think the Cubs are going to win the World Series someday Aunt Dot?”

“Heck yes.  They got to get a manager in there first.  But you get someone with brains, keep Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Ron Santo together and put some pitching around them and they’ll go all the way.  I think they’ll win it yet in the 60’s.”

“The 60’s?  Jeez Aunt Dot it’s only 1961.  The 60’s will last another eight years.  You think it will take maybe eight years?”  I was only ten.  Eight years was a lifetime.

“Well these things take time David.  It’s like politics.  You wait till your time comes.  We waited out that do nothing Eisenhower for all those years and now look.  We’ve got a good young Democrat with a family in the white house.  He’s a winner that guy.  He’s got a plan. And your Dad loves him.”

“I know.  I’ve never seen Dad so happy as when Kennedy got elected.”

“That’s cause your Dad’s a good Democrat David, on top of being a good Cub fan.  Good things come to those who wait.”

 I heard the honk of our Dodge Coronet from the street.

“There’s Mom.  Thanks for the pop Aunt Dot, and thanks for talking.”

“You’re welcome Dave.  Tell your Dad hello.  And tell him his little sister said the Cubs are about to break it all loose.”

“OK.  But he won’t believe you.”

“Tell him anyway.”