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 naïve.  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.

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