Friday, February 21, 2020

A Chance Encounter on the Way to Quesadillas

I see him sometimes on his bike, and knew he was big, but I didn’t know he’d grown taller than me until I stood next to him in the store.  I still live in the town where I was a counselor and he has never left.  Funny we run into each other so little. 

He immediately began talking, telling me a story of something that happened to him, like he did when he was a boy and I a young man. 

A school counselor asked if I could help him.  He was suddenly failing, but the counselor was worried about much more than that.  His parents were alarmed, unsure, but let me see him.

He was guarded, hedged his words, looked away.  I saw him every week, sometimes twice.  I’d see him alone.  He liked to ride bikes on the canal.  We rode slowly beside each other and talked.  When others rode by, he was quiet till they passed.

I included him in a group with three other kids I was seeing.  At first, he didn’t mix well, staying close and talking mostly to me.  I let individual kids pick where we were going next.  When his turn came this tall, friendless boy picked a place near a strip mine, sandstone canyons outside the state park, hard to get to, that the other boys loved.  It was a good day for him.  He became part of the group.

He shared secrets with me.  I suggested he let me help him tell his parents, but he was afraid, so I waited.  He finally did allow me to help him reveal those secrets to his sister, married and out of the house, who also promised not to tell.  That helped.  He was surprised and relieved she wasn’t angry.

Time passed.  I suggested we all meet, that both his sister and I help him tell his parents the secrets.  He wanted to think that over.  We let him.  Finally, he agreed.

His sister did most of the talking.  All of them, including their mother, watched the Dad carefully.  It was as if the things he admitted were not secrets to the mother.  The father looked down and nodded.  We couldn’t tell what he thought.  It was tense.

Then he looked up at his son and told him it was all right.  Oxygen flooded back into the room.  I soon begged off, saying I had an appointment.  Mom started dinner.

The boy didn’t need me as much after that, but he didn’t know it.  I saw him less but included him in the group for months.  The group began to see each other without me.  I faded out of their lives and into the lives of others.

As years went by, I heard from the sister most often.  Life was not easy for her brother, but he made it.  Their father passed away, and then their mother.  They sold the family home and with the money her brother, with his sister’s guidance, bought a small house he could afford to maintain.  He talks often with his sister still. 

Forty years later the boy, now a middle-aged man, was telling me, an old man, of a brush with death experience between him on a bike and a woman in a car.  He was excited and included all the details.  I was holding a bag of tortillas and slab of chihuahua cheese.  He didn’t seem to notice.  I could hear the boy in his voice, the boy I once knew, scared, but able to trust.  Loved by a family.  Grown into a man.  Living his life.

Finally, the tale ended.  I asked about the boys in our old group, his sister.  Our meeting was drawing to a close.

“Do you think I thanked you back then?”

“I think you probably did.”

“I bet I didn’t.”

“It’s all right.  I was glad to help.”

“Thank you.”

“Your sister did most of the work.  And you.  You were brave.  It was a lot to ask.”

“Still, I’m glad you were there.”

“Me too.”

“See you around.  Take care of yourself.”

“You too.”

I shifted the cheese to the hand holding the tortillas.  He extended his hand.  I squeezed it.  He looked right at me.  It had been forty years.  Neither of us forgot.      

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Hot Toddy 2020

I was reminded of this old post by a reader today and updated it.  Some posts, and recipes, are timeless.

Last Monday my nose started to run.  It became annoying.  As the day went on, I started sneezing.  I used more and more Kleenex, and my nose got red and raw.  Could be allergies I thought.

That night I didn’t sleep well, and Tuesday  I woke with the start of a sore throat.  By afternoon that sore throat was beyond just starting.  It hurt.  I started to cough. 

Wednesday my head cold had migrated to my chest.  I felt wheezy.  I knew then I officially had the crud.  I get it every winter it seems.  I get cocky sometimes and think I’ve beaten it, but I never do.  If its only one cold a year,that’s a triumph.  It’s to be expected, but I never expect it.  I feel victimized, singled out, unfortunate.  Some might say I get whiny, someone close to me.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I get sick is what I get, and nothing is more important than getting over it.

There are theories about the crud.  Some say our mild winter, which has so far lacked a hard and prolonged freeze, failed to kill these bugs that attack us.  I for one think nothing kills these bugs, they live among us and attack us in winter when we are most vulnerable.  We miss the sun, we’re halfway between Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, stuck somewhere between red and green, and life sucks.  February, aside from Valentine’s day, sucks.  We’re sick of winter, life sucks, we get colds.  It’s the human condition for those of us who insist on living in Illinois throughout the winter.

But I for one refuse to despair because I have the cure for these damned colds.  Before there was Mucinex, before Nyquil and Dayquil, before Theraflu, and yes even before Vicks VapoRub, was the hot toddy.  And I have the recipe.  The Hot Toddy is not only ingredients and preparation, its attitude.  Colds suck, but hot toddies help us fight back.  Ironically when your spirits are down, the spirit(s) found in  the hot toddy will pick you up. 

Hot toddies are the tried and true treatment of colds and maladies of all kinds.  Before there was shrink wrap, TV advertising, and a reliance on pills and drugs to cure all our ills, hot toddies were relieving symptoms of cold and flu all across America.  Ingredients for this amazing remedy were commonly found in all households, save for those of tea totallers who helped America careen off the rails and into Prohibition in the 1930’s.  Here’s all it takes to be on the road to recovery via hot toddy, in this order.

Water-not much.  A quarter inch, and certainly less than a half an inch, in the bottom of a small saucepan is plenty.  A small saucepan mind you.  Maybe that little one you cook your oatmeal in.

Lemon-whatever you have, but preferably the juice of half a fresh lemon. Don’t worry about the seeds, and when you’re done squeezing toss the peel in the pan.

Honey-plenty. If your honey comes packed inside a plastic squeezable bear give yourself the amount of honey between his eyes and his mouth.  If it’s in a jar start with two tablespoons.

Cinnamon-if you have cinnamon sticks, little rolled up pieces of bark, throw in two.  If not, put in less than a teaspoon of ground.  Try to incorporate it into the honey so it doesn’t float on top.

Whiskey, or one of its brown cousins-this is the heart and soul of the hot toddy and deserves special attention.  After much experimentation I find a Kentucky bourbon of fairly high proof works best.  I’ve used both scotch and rye, and Bushmill’s Irish which comes in a close second, but for my palate it’s hard to beat the  Midwest America good stuff.  You don’t need to use your best sippin’ bourbon for this drink.  A bottle of good all-purpose inexpensive hard stuff works just fine. I’m partial to Old Grand Dad 100 proof.

Whatever you choose, or whatever you have, keep it on the counter, readily available, for the duration of your cold.  You might consider keeping a bottle on hand dedicated just for this medicinal purpose.  You never know when a cold may strike.  I plan to replace the bottle of Old Grand Dad that helped me beat my cold, perhaps adding one more to be safe, on my very next trip to Herman’s Liquor Store.

The brown cousins, brandy, cognac, and dark rum, though inferior in my opinion, are suitable replacements.  White rum, which you might consider appropriate, ruins the presentation.  It’s not right.  Hot toddies are brown.  That’s the way it goes.

Prepare as follows-Add enough whiskey or other brown spirits to the mixture in your saucepan to fill it half to three quarters full.  If it’s over ¾ full, that’s OK.  Light the burner, adjust the flame to somewhere between full on and half lit, and stir your toddy.  Get those cinnamon sticks twirling around on the bottom, swish the honey with the lemon, let the whiskey mix with the water, and watch as bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan.

Get your nose close to the toddy.  This is part of the cure.  Get that nice boozy smell way up in your head.  It will help clear you up.  Under no circumstances allow your toddy mix to boil.  Boiling reduces the alcohol content, and that won’t do. Now taste.

·       If the lemon tastes too sour, add more whiskey.

·       If it seems a little watery, add more whiskey.

·       If you find the honey has made it too sweet, add more whiskey.

Come to think of it, any hot toddy problem is best solved by adding more whiskey.  Do this as you heat the toddy, as adding cold whiskey at the end reduces the temperature of your toddy which will result in a tepid toddy, rather than a hot one. 

Before it boils, but after it steams, turn the heat under your toddy mix off and ladle a generous portion of your newly created home remedy into a porcelain coffee cup rather than a glass.  The cup will keep your toddy hot, and not using a glass will prevent your spouse or other family members from visually monitoring your toddy consumption as the day goes on.  Don’t be surprised if it alarms them.  If confronted the proper response to expressions of concern, from a spouse or other loved one regarding the amount of hot toddy you are consuming is this:

“Who has this cold? You or me?” 

I suggest keeping the saucepan on the stove and adding various ingredients as needed so that you maintain a continuous supply of hot toddy at all times during the day.  If there was a dosage recommendation for hot toddy like those that come with manufactured products it would be “take liberally, as needed, until desired results are achieved.”

I began the hot toddy treatment Tuesday afternoon, continued it throughout the day on Wednesday, and by Thursday felt 100% better.  Taking a hot shower and getting dressed Thursday added to my recovery.  Sometimes you have to just soldier on. 

And there you go.  Stay warm. Winter will soon be over.  But if a cold strikes know that there is a home remedy at your disposal that promises to relieve your symptoms in a most enjoyable way.  Try the hot toddy.  You’ll like it.     

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Dave's Still Here

I haven’t put out a blog in a month.  Not so.

For a very long time, I’ve sat on a book of farm stories.   Some of them were written a long time ago, when I was travelling.  I digitized them, brought them together in one Microsoft folder, and eventually put them into a single file.  Going out on a creative limb, I named the file Farm Stories, whole thing.  I’ve never found a title.  I managed a table of contents though.

Ten years ago, I sent a few farm stories to people close to me, mostly family and a few close friends.  One was “Shelling Corn.”  Another was “Christmas on the Farm.”  To a very few I sent a story called “Trust.”  They urged me to write more stories like them.  My nephew said something that sparked my interest.

“When I read your stories,” he said, “I can hear your voice.”

 I wasn’t sure what that meant but it seemed positive. 

I added stories, rewrote some, put them in some vague order.  Three years ago, I sent them out to a wider audience, maybe a dozen Alpha readers, which included both friends and acquaintances.  Some were people from my childhood I’d found on Face Book and not talked to in many years.  In addition to them I shared the stories with people that had no connection to farming or my early days in Central Illinois.

I found my former English teacher, who accepted the assignment gladly and made individual comments on each story.  I felt a little like she was grading my paper.  One of the Alpha readers tried to categorize them into farm stories and family stories.  They read my stories and gave them real thought.  I was amazed in a way.

I have always had feedback on my blog, most of it immediate, but this was different.  They read over 90,000 of my words and communicated in a thoughtful and helpful way.  That’s a wonderful thing to do for a writer.  It helped me a lot.

But still I concentrated mainly on my blog.  The book was put on the digital shelf.  But as an old psalmist once wrote, “who knows from whence cometh our help?”  Sometimes assistance bubbles up from unexpected sources.

I made a friend at church who was new to town.  He lived most of his life in or near diverse and vital cities before relocating here.  To adapt to small town life, he tries to recreate some of the things he experienced in cities and misses.

He had been part of a group on the West Coast who met regularly and listened to each other’s poetry read aloud, either original or admired.  He pitched the idea to our church, Open Table in Ottawa, and they agreed to let it happen monthly in their space. 

From that monthly group of poetry enthusiasts a group of regulars formed.  The regulars, which included me, became so comfortable talking and listening to each other, that this conversation occurred.

“I enjoyed your last blog.”

“I’m glad you did.  What was it about?”

“You were talking to the Republican guy in the BBQ joint in Alabama.”

“Yeah.  That was a fun one to write.  I was afraid it was too long.  Too political.”

“No, it was good.  The dialogue worked well.”


“How many blogs do you think you’ve written?”

“A lot.  I started writing them years before I retired, but those were about the agency.  I first sent the blog to board members, then donors, and later staff and referral sources.  It grew.  Started in the early 2000’s I’d say.  Used to do it weekly without fail.  In fact, that’s one of the reasons I retired.  The blog was all I wanted to do.”

“So more than ten years?”

“Oh yeah.  Probably.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Why do you say that?”

“When there is a lot of stuff to go through, a lot of material to consider, it bogs people down. Overwhelms them.  Rereading and grouping old pieces together is not like working on the same book draft every day.  Your thoughts jump around, unless you confine yourself to a narrow topic.  Do you have a fairly narrow focus to your blog?”

“No.  Not at all.  When people ask me what my blog is about I say, “Whatever I want.”

“But you might think about publishing anyway.  I think your voice is strong.”

“What do you mean "voice"?  I’ve heard that before and I don’t exactly know what it means. “

“Hard to explain, but its something like authenticity.  Believability.  Think of reading Mike Royko.  Were you around for Royko?”

“Sure I was.”

“You didn’t even have to look at the byline to know you were reading Royko.  It was the way he used words.  Made sentences.  It was like putting his handwritten signature on the page even though it was a standard commercial font.  It made you comfortable, like a pleasant voice does.”

“I see.”

There was a pause.

“I’ve never pulled out blog posts and tried to group them together in a coherent way, but I do have a collection of old farm stories.”

“Why farm stories?”

“I grew up on a farm.  Dairy farm.  On Route 9 between Bloomington and Pekin.  Went to a tiny school in a small town.  The first story is an early memory at age four and the last is me leaving the farm for college and not looking back.”

“Boyhood story then.  Takes place on a farm.”

“Yeah, I guess, if you put it that away.  But a collection of stories.  Not a book.”

“Would you share it with me?”

“It’s long.  Somewhere over 90,000 words”

“That’s all right.  I don’t care.”

“Sure.  I’ll send it.”

That’s how stuff happens.  You talk to someone. Listen.  Make a connection.  Offer an idea.  It’s simple really.

The person who agreed to read my stories was first accepted by a publisher in 2006.  Several books of poetry and two novels later, she knows what it takes to get published. 

I don’t.  I’ve been silently trying to plot some course toward that goal ever since the first day I retired.  Silently is the key word in that sentence.  I read articles on writing and publishing.  Signed up for digital discussion groups with emerging authors.  It got me nowhere.  Why do we think we can do things on our own without real and tangible help from other people?  How often does that happen?

Read the dedication pages of books.  Honest authors thank a whole list of people.  It takes a village to raise a child and that same village is required, I think, to get one of its member’s written thoughts distributed to a wider public.  I’ve barely admitted publishing was a goal and talked to very few people about it.  It was like a hope I dared not mention lest it break into a thousand pieces.  Who knows why we think the way we do?

She told me she thought what I sent her was good.  She not only read it she began to edit it.  Together we rearranged the stories.  We cut stuff.  We thought some threads needed to be expanded, and some themes better developed.  We asked and answered questions of each other over email.

One of my  questions to her was this.  “Instead of a book of stories, do you think these might be chapters in a book?”

She responded right away. “I’ve been hoping you’d see them as chapters.  If you think that way, you will change your approach.  To me, your book is a memoir, a coming of age story of a boy who experiences the world through the people and animals on his family’s small farm, and the community around it.  Each chapter advances his learning, gets him closer to maturity, and prepares him for the day he leaves.  If you concentrate on it as a book, each chapter will advance that theme.”

I’m on my fifth draft.  Each draft requires less changes.  I’ve drafted an author blurb and a blurb about the book.  We’re getting closer.  The next big step is submission to publishers.

So that’s what I’ve been doing instead of blogging.  I’ll try to talk to you more often.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Fooling Around

I woke up early December 10th to a dark twelve-degree morning.  Before my thoughts turned to the present, I remembered how bright the moon was during the night and recalled, ever so briefly, the tail end of a vivid, colorful dream.

Sadly, mundane thoughts of the new day chased my dream away and it is now lost forever.  What was more important than my dream?  My regret at not cutting firewood the day before when it was warm.

Cold dominated my thoughts.  I thought of where to find my chopper mittens, my cold weather hat (a Stormy Kromer), and a warmer scarf.  At the same time, I imagined keeping the cold chill of the shack off my coffee.   It’s one small room heated by a small wood stove.  Sunrise is a treat in the shack because it has an east facing glass wall overlooking a deep ravine.  I didn’t want to miss the show, but it was going to be damned cold during the first twenty minutes of my arrival. 

I put bread in the toaster, got apple butter from the fridge, and poured myself a glass of milk.    

I ground dark roast coffee beans, filled the basket of a small stovetop Bialetti coffee maker, put it on a burner, and lit the gas.  Espresso would soon begin brewing in that odd upside-down machine.  I looked for my thermos, but it was nowhere to be found.  Then I remembered.  I could see it plain as day sitting in the shack on my desk where I’d left it the day before.  I hate it when that happens.  It creates a rough spot in an otherwise smooth morning.

I found my coat and warm weather hat where I had left them and headed out the back door.  It’s a quick trip to the shack and back.  The stainless-steel thermos, right where I thought it would be, was freezing.  So was my hand holding it as I carried it back to the house.

The espresso would be piping hot.  Putting it in an ice-cold thermos would defeat the purpose, so I microwaved a big tumbler of water (hot water takes forever to make the trip from the basement water heater to our kitchen faucet). 

As the microwave whirred and did its mysterious thing to the water, the Bialetti began to burble. So that it would not boil and make the fresh brew bitter, I turned the burner off.  Next, I poured the now hot water from the tumbler into the thermos to warm it so it wouldn’t draw heat from the espresso.

I waited.  While I did, I had breakfast and worked on the Chicago Tribune crossword puzzle. 

Sometime after the answer to the clue for 50 across “The Good Earth mother” leapt magically into my brain (Olan), it dawned on me (pun intended) that I was playing a zero-sum game.  As my thermos was warming up, my espresso was cooling down.  Success sometimes seems impossible.

What was the optimum time to end those opposite dynamics of cooling and warming for the hottest possible coffee?  I wasn’t going to know with any certainty, and I damned well wasn’t going to waste more time thinking about it.

I found my Stormy Kromer hat on the opposite end of a shelf where my chopper mittens were hiding.  I found the wool scarf I pictured on a hanger in the closet where it I thought it would be.  I went back to the kitchen.  There I dumped the hot water from the thermos, poured in the espresso, and added two sugar cubes.  After putting on my newly assembled cold weather gear, I headed back through the cold, hot coffee in hand, to the shack and the coming dawn.

It was time to put an end to those mundane thoughts and get on with my day.  There’s only so much fooling around you should do before beginning to write.