Cleaning Up the Mess

A week ago, when the big blizzard was just getting started, it was easy to write about it with humor. This week, not so much.

Oh, there’s no problem finding the lighter side based on just our own experience. We were incredibly fortunate. Our power was only out for one morning, plus two other short intervals. We didn’t have any trees fall on our house, damage our cars, or block our driveway. We didn’t have any medical emergencies or food shortages. We didn’t even run out of library books.

Basically, for us the storm was like a weekend retreat at an isolated discount spa. It featured nice towels, reasonably hot water, remarkably average food, and clean sheets if you wanted to change them yourself. Its most noteworthy offering was its unique exercise program. Snow shovels were provided by the management; guest were required to furnish their own snowpants and boots.

For a great many people, though, this storm was nothing to laugh about. There’s been enough said and written about its impact that I don’t need to add any more. The power outages, the broken trees, the damaged buildings, and especially the heartbreaking loss that puts everything else into perspective—the financial and emotional disaster of the thousands of dead cattle and sheep.

Of course, there are always a few people looking for someone to blame, like the complainers who seem to think the snowplows should hit their streets as soon as the first snowflakes do. Or the ones who don’t seem to grasp that rebuilding power lines takes time, especially when the work is complicated by deep snowdrifts, mud, and downed trees.

Many, many more, however, cope without drama. They dig themselves out and put themselves out to help their neighbors,. Like the volunteers with snowmobiles taking oxygen and other supplies to stranded people with medical needs. The unsung heroes with tractors plowing out their neighborhoods. Or the crews out working long, long hours and days to clear roads and restore power.

A columnist for the Rapid City Journal, Michael Sanborn, wrote a piece after the blizzard praising the way people came together to help each other. I agreed with most of what he said. Except this: “The western South Dakota community has shown our resilience. Had this happened in New York or Washington, it would still be the nation’s top story, because they aren’t as tough as we are.”

What nonsense. I somehow doubt he would say that in person to those who lost homes, businesses—and loved ones—in superstorm Sandy. When it comes to coping with disasters, there’s no difference between South Dakota, Haiti, Oklahoma, New York City, or anywhere else. Ultimately, we’re all part of the same community. The support and help we give each other is what helps make us so tough and resilient.

That’s why we keep shaking our heads and getting back up when Mother Nature—who can be a harsh and unforgiving old crone—has whacked us again. That’s why, when the storm is over, so many people matter-of-factly set about cleaning up the mess.  And why so many of them say, and mean it, “It could have been worse.”

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: | 4 Comments

Whatever Happened to Fall?

The bird feeder has a white cap on its top the size of a soccer ball. The chickadees and finches are pulling seeds out of the top half of the feeder, perched as they are with chilly little claws on several inches of snow packed down by their repeated visits.

The chokecherry bushes in the front yard are bent to the ground like ballerinas doing their warmup stretches, and the small pine trees appear to be practicing yoga poses. The tops of the large trees are swaying in the wind, but their lower branches are so heavy with snow that they don’t even move. The tomato plants, whose last fruits were still happily ripening two days ago, have disappeared beneath a snowdrift.

Our power was out for several hours this morning, but thankfully, it came back on and has stayed that way. Given the heavy, wet snow and the wind, I wouldn’t be surprised if it went out again. With a wood stove downstairs, we certainly aren’t going to be cold or hungry. The only real deprivation is—gasp!—no computer or Internet connection! I was starting to suffer from withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, a strong need to check for updates on Facebook, and an acute absence of spam email messages. It’s a good thing the electricity came back on before I broke out in hives.

All that aside, I don’t know which I’m more grateful for—the utility workers who are out in the storm working to repair broken electric lines, or the fact that I’m not one of them.

When we left here ten days ago on a trip to the Southwest, it was still summer. It was summer in southeastern New Mexico. It was late summer, with the first fall colors beginning to show, when we got back. And now we’re in the middle of a blizzard that has already dumped a foot of snow on us and several feet of snow on our neighbors in the northern Black Hills. Never mind that my sandals are still sitting beside the dresser and I don’t know where my warm gloves are—it feels a heck of a lot like winter.

Wait just a minute. Wasn’t there supposed to be another season in there somewhere?

Categories: Odds and Ends | 3 Comments

Stop and Smell the Bacon

Bacon. It’s one of life’s fatty little joys. Especially when you have fresh tomatoes from your own garden and can combine the two for BLT’s.

That’s what we had for supper the other night. Well, actually, since I discovered at the last minute that we were out of lettuce, we had BT’s. Close enough. It’s the bacon and tomatoes that matter the most, anyway. (I briefly considered substituting spinach, but somehow BST’s just wouldn’t have been the same.)

Anyway, while I was cooking, I had one of those stop-and-smell-the-bacon moments of pondering, and the significant life question that crossed my mind was, “What in the heck is a rasher?”

As in a “rasher of bacon.” It’s one of those descriptions that shows up now and then, particularly for those of us who read British mysteries. But how much bacon is in a rasher?

Inquiring minds wanted to know. So, as soon as they had chomped down their BT and wiped the bacon grease off their fingers, inquiring minds went off to look it up.

Three dictionaries later, inquiring minds were confused. All three sources defined rasher as both A, a thin slice of bacon, and B, a serving of several slices of bacon. Apparently, a “rasher” could consist of several rashers. None of them knew where the term “rasher” came from, either. That was certainly enlightening.

At least most the other odd terms of weights and measures we use have some precision. Take “teaspoon” and “tablespoon,” for example. Any good cookbook will tell you that a tablespoon equals half an ounce and there are three teaspoons in a tablespoon.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why they have the names they do. When I was a kid, it never made sense to me that the spoons we put on the table at mealtimes were “teaspoons,” while the only time we used “tablespoons” for eating was when we had soup. Which is probably why we called them “soup spoons.”

It wasn’t until I got a little older and started reading British mysteries that I figured out some people used the larger spoons for eating and the smaller ones for stirring their tea. Today, while I am no longer confused if I see people actually using a tablespoon to eat something besides soup, I still don’t do so myself. And I don’t care who you are, using a tablespoon for ice cream is just not right.

Maybe it’s because they use large spoons at the table that the Brits measure their weight in “stones.” Or maybe it’s just that, when your money is “pounds,” you don’t want to confuse your net worth and your net weight. The dictionaries were not enlightening on this point. They did, however, inform me that a stone equals 14 pounds.

Now that’s a unit of measure any experienced dieter could get used to. Just consider the difference between, “I gained half a stone,” and, “I gained seven pounds.”

But whether you measure your weight in pounds or stones, I do know one thing. If you don’t want too much of it, don’t get rash with your rashers of bacon.

Categories: Food and Drink, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

When the Frost Is on the Banana Peels

Okay, let’s be clear. I love having a self-defrosting refrigerator. If anyone tried to remove the one in our kitchen, they’d have to pry the ice cube trays out of my cold blue fingers first.

But there’s no question that there is a small benefit to being forced to defrost the freezer once a year or so. At least it gives you an opportunity to find out what’s buried back there behind the ice cream and bags of frozen peas.

Otherwise, some people—I am, of course, speaking theoretically here—might never get around to cleaning out the freezer. They could just leave stuff in there for years and years. Or at least until their hands are forced by outside factors.

Such as the chance to buy a lot of high-quality meat at an unbeatable price. With the cold, hard reality of two coolers full of beef sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, suddenly there’s a real need to conduct a freezer excavation.

The benefits of this project aren’t limited to making room for some scrumptious steaks and getting rid of unrecognizable frozen blobs of ancient leftovers. There is real scientific knowledge to be gained.

For example, whipped topping, left in the freezer in its original container for, oh, a couple of years or so, tends to shrink. It turns into a lump of something vaguely cream-colored with the consistency of old spackling compound. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to put this on a piece of pumpkin pie.

Given enough time and judicious doses of freezer burn, a bag of frozen zucchini and a bag of frozen tomatoes become almost indistinguishable.

When freezing leftovers, it’s a good idea to write the date and a brief description on the bag. Something like, “broccoli-rice casserole that nobody liked anyway.” That way you’ll know exactly what it is when you throw it out a couple of years later.

If you have overripe bananas you want to use for future banana bread, it’s fine to just toss them into the freezer, peels and all. But if you never quite get around to making any bread, the bananas eventually mummify. Except for the shape, a desiccated banana with its innards collapsed and its peel black and shriveled tends to bear a strong resemblance to National Geographic photos of bog bodies.

Unfortunately, these scientific observations are based on a very small sample. For statistically significant results, I would have to become more like one of my late relatives. I’m not going to name him, just in case I might have inherited some of his hoarding tendencies. When he moved out of his house, the unfortunate family members who got stuck with the task of cleaning it out found stacks and stacks of stuff like decades-old new shirts still in their original packages.

And frozen food. At the bottom of his big chest-type freezer were ten ice-covered hearts. Before you start imagining CSI episodes or gory thrillers, let me hasten to clarify that they were beef hearts. Presumably, they went into the freezer at different times over at least a ten-year period, whenever he got them from friends who were butchering their own beef.

The hearts, like pretty much everything else in the freezer, went straight to the dump. A shame, in a way. It might have been a perfect chance to study the relative rates of freeze-drying mummification in bovine tissue. Oh, well, just another lost scientific opportunity.

Which I need to be careful not to recreate in my own small freezer. Excuse me while I go thaw out a couple of steaks for dinner.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Questions to Ponder While Weeding the Garden

Questions that only occur to curious minds during the summer:

1. If scientists ever discovered a significant use for dandelions and thistles–biofuel, maybe, or a cure for cancer–which turned them into valuable commercial crops, would they suddenly become hard to grow?

2. Why is it that, no matter when you schedule a summer trip, that week turns out to be the precise time that the tomatoes ripen?

3. Do all those other people in the produce department thumping the melons really know how to tell when a watermelon is ripe, or are they just faking it the same way you are?

4. Isn’t it useful that corn on the cob comes with those little threads of silk? It’s so convenient, while you munch your way down the rows of kernels, to be able to floss your teeth at the same time.

5. And perhaps the most troubling question: Where do fruit flies come from? You have some peaches or plums or bananas on the counter, ripening quickly in the summer heat. Then one day you walk into the kitchen and see a cloud of tiny flies, darting in erratic circles like drunken ultralight pilots, spending their brief lives buzzed on overdoses of fructose.

Obviously, the flies hatched out of eggs. But the question that’s almost as annoying as the flies is, “Where did the eggs come from?” Were they inside the window frames? Had they been hidden for months in miniscule crevices and crannies of your apparently clean counter, until they were awakened by the seductive scent of overripe fruit?

Or, even worse, did they come with the fruit? Maybe they were right there all along, on the skins of the peaches or the peels of the bananas. It’s possible that, over the years, thousands of unknowing vegetarians have been supplementing their diets with secret insect protein they never knew they were eating.

Eeeew.

Excuse me for a minute; I need to go wash some plums and peaches. With bleach.

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Look, look, look. See Dick and Jane sweat.

Okay, class. Here’s a question for you. If you think it’s a good idea to send kids back to school in the middle of August, raise your hands.

I don’t see a single hand in the air. What? You don’t think sweaty little kids, especially those lucky enough to go to school in old buildings with no air conditioning, are going to learn well when it’s 90-plus degrees? When they’d rather be at the pool or somewhere enjoying the last few weeks of what used to be considered summer vacation?

At least kids here in Rapid City don’t start school till next week. (When, by the way, we’re supposed to have the hottest weather we’ve had all summer.) But other less fortunate little learners have already been in their classrooms for a week or even two. One of my grandkids even missed the first week of kindergarten because of a family wedding scheduled for what the parties involved naively still considered to be “summer.”

Given that he’s a bright kid and enthusiastic about school, I doubt that missing a few days at the beginning of his academic journey will cause any lasting harm. Maybe he still learned to read in the second week.

I know, I know, learning to read isn’t supposed to happen that fast. Kids learn letters, and then they learn sounds, and then words, and then simple sentences. But sometimes, along the way, there’s a magical moment when everything suddenly makes sense. That’s what happened to me.

Kindergarten for me meant going to a one-room country school for the last six weeks of the spring term. I don’t remember the first day of school; I don’t remember the teacher’s name or what she looked like. But I do remember vividly the day—the moment even—that I learned to read.

The book was a thin paperback, battered and dog-eared and long out of date even then. It was one of those old schoolroom classics about Dick and Jane. The first story had pictures of Spot chasing Puff across the yard, while Dick and Jane watched. They were jumping up and down with excitement—it didn’t take much to get Dick and Jane excited—and Dick was pointing and shouting something. There were words under the pictures, and the teacher helped me sound them out. “See Spot. See Spot run.”

The language of those books has long since become a joke. Three or four generations of us could chant in parody: “Oh, oh, oh. Look, look, look. See Spot run.”

When I was five, though, it wasn’t a cliché; it was magic. Suddenly something clicked, and I was reading. The pictures told me what was happening, and the words told me what Dick was saying to Jane. Together they made up a story, and I had just read it for myself.

I hope, in between wiping their sweaty little hands on their new school clothes and making trips to the water fountain to try to cool off, little kids in classrooms all over the country get a chance to experience that same magic.

Categories: Remembering When | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

From Smoking to Drinking

Watching a recent documentary about the civil rights movement, I was struck by one dramatic difference between the United States of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the United States of today.

Not the status of blacks. Nor the status of women. The status of smokers.

They were everywhere. The documentary included old news footage of a civil rights leader testifying before Congress. He was sitting behind a microphone, answering questions, and after every response he would take another draw on his cigarette. No doubt many of the Congressmen asking the questions were doing much the same thing.

Now, if anyone would dare to light a cigarette in the hallowed halls of our nation’s capitol, somebody would call security faster than you could say “Marlboro Man”.

During the 50’s and 60’s, getting ready for a governmental session or a business meeting probably meant having a secretary set out pens and notepads for every participant and make sure there were plenty of clean ashtrays. Clean, probably, because she had emptied them at the end of the previous meeting.

Now, getting ready for a governmental session or a business meeting probably means having an intern make sure the Wifi and the Power Point projector are working. Any participants archaic enough to need pens and paper are expected to bring their own. There probably isn’t an ashtray in the whole building. The few remaining smokers in the group will arrive at the last possible minute, because they’ve been somewhere outside in the smoking area grabbing a quick cigarette before the meeting.

There is, however, still something the intern needs to put at every place: a plastic bottle of water.

In today’s world, bottles of water are as common as cigarettes were several decades ago. We carry them on walks. We keep them at our desks and in our cars. We take them to athletic events, concerts, and meetings. And I’m sure no one testifying before Congress—or in any other hot seat—would be without one.

In many ways, too, bottles of water have become useful props in the same way cigarettes used to be. You need some time to frame an answer to a difficult question? Then: take a puff of tobacco. Now: take a sip of water. You aren’t being quite precisely truthful? Then: hide your face behind a cloud of smoke. Now: hide your face behind your water bottle. And now, of course, if you get really desperate, you can always ask for a break so you can go to the restroom. Nobody will question it; after all, you have been drinking all that water.

In future documentaries about our particular time in history, viewers are going to point this out to each other: “Just look—there’s a plastic water bottle at every seat! Couldn’t any of these people go ten minutes without a drink?”

The change from ubiquitous cigarettes to ubiquitous water bottles certainly is an improvement. Water guzzlers have to be healthier than smokers, especially when you factor in the fitness benefits of all those extra trips to the bathroom.

Water is a lot cheaper than tobacco, too. Well, except maybe for those deluded souls who pay extra for the special ultra-pure kinds that supposedly come from secret, super-beneficial springs in the rain forest or the mountains. But even if you buy the store brands by the case, you’re paying a lot for liquid you can get almost anywhere for free. And that doesn’t even count the larger cost of making all those plastic bottles and dealing with the billions of empties.

Imbibers who care about the planet and are really frugal carry reusable bottles, filled with pure, filtered water from that secret, special location—the nearest faucet. Just think of it as the 21st Century version of rolling your own.

There is one final advantage of drinking over smoking. If a clueless nicotine addict is foolish enough to light up in your presence, all you have to do is douse the cigarette with your bottle of water.

Categories: Food and Drink, Remembering When | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

A Nose by any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

Years ago, on my single (so far) visit to New York City, I had a chance to spend an afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art. One of the highlights of that visit was seeing a collection of works by Auguste Rodin. He is famous for his iconic and powerful sculptures like “The Kiss” and “The Thinker.”

Yet the piece I liked most in the MOMA collection is a portrait bust in white marble called “Madame X.” It shows a woman with a simple hairstyle and no jewelry, her head tilted slightly and her chin raised at an aristocratic angle. She has a nose that a tactful person would describe as “prominent.” It isn’t an ugly nose, but you might say it stands out. In profile, it makes a line that starts at her brow, sweeps smoothly up to the top of a small slope, and makes an abrupt descent. It’s the kind of nose that would be an asset on someone in authority like, say, a high-school algebra teacher.

To me, it’s the nose that gives the woman’s face its character. Apparently Rodin agreed. The bust was commissioned as a portrait of Anna-Elizabeth de Noailles, a French countess. Based on existing photographs of her, it’s an accurate likeness rather than a society portrait meant to flatter.

Had Rodin been a different kind of sculptor, no doubt he would have performed artistic surgery and given the portrait a more conventional and prettier nose. Financially if not artistically, this would have been wise on his part. When MOMA bought the bust from Rodin in 1910, his records showed that the countess had refused to accept it. Apparently she didn’t appreciate her nose.

Which I understand. I’ve never appreciated mine, either. It isn’t as large as hers, but it doesn’t have an elegant swoop like hers, either. It’s just there in the middle of my face, in a rather boring and ordinary way.

A couple of years ago, though, the dermatologist removed a skin cancer from my nose. Fortunately, the surgery didn’t leave any major dents, ridges, or mismatched grafted skin. There’s just a scar that isn’t noticeable to anyone but me.

Still, this has given me a new appreciation for my nose. Aside from some relatively minor sinus issues, it works reliably, day in and day out. It allows me to enjoy aromas like new-mown grass, roses, just-bathed babies, brownies fresh out of the oven, and bacon. It has reliably held up my glasses ever since I was in second grade. Given all that, I can live with the fact that no one will ever want to immortalize it in marble.

Even though, given a choice, the nose I have isn’t necessarily the one I would have picked.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Singing in the Rain

The romantic appeal of walking in the rain with your sweetheart has been grossly overstated.

Big, cold drops hitting the back of your white cotton shirt and plastering it, one blotch at a time, to your increasingly clammy skin. The curtain of drips falling from the brim of your broad-brimmed hat (your white sun hat, worn because the morning was so bright and sunny when you left the house). The creeping wetness across the back of your shorts.

And above all, the squishiness inside your walking shoes. That would be the nearly new, rather expensive “country hikers” you bought for their ruggedness without thinking there was any need for them to be waterproof. Not that it would matter if they were. Whatever water is seeping into them from below is insignificant compared to the amount trickling down your bare legs and filling the shoes from the top. Your socks gradually become sodden sponges, and with every step you can feel water spurting out from beneath your toes.

Gene Kelly notwithstanding, there is nothing romantic about any of this.

Okay, time to stop whining and get back to reality. We merely went out for a walk on a sunny summer morning and happened to get caught by a fast-moving shower that sneaked up on us from an unexpected direction. It poured for the last half-mile of our walk, then, having drenched us thoroughly, stopped just as we turned into our own driveway. I swear that last peal of thunder was really a deep-throated chuckle.

But we weren’t out on the road on a motorcycle. Or driving cattle. Or hauling bales. Or checking up on elk or buffalo or tourists. Or standing at a construction site holding a “slow” sign for drivers that splashed us as they went by. Or doing any of the outdoor jobs that don’t stop just because the people doing them might get a little—or a lot—wet. Jobs that some of us, sitting at our nice dry desks in nice dry clothes after our nice warm showers, don’t have to do.

Thanks to them all. May they be blessed with good raincoats, waterproof boots, and dry socks.

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: | 3 Comments

Mother Goose

Whose idea was it to put a goose in charge of children’s storytelling?

Mother Goose has apparently been around for several centuries. The drawings of her in children’s books usually show her with a cute little bonnet and a shawl or apron, looking like a kindly grandma with feathers. If a child said to her, “But Grandmother, what a big beak you have!”, she would just smile indulgently and give the kid another cookie.

Real geese aren’t like that. I have a faint memory (very faint—I’m sure I blocked it out because of the trauma) of a pair of geese my own grandmother had when I was little. I was scared to death of them. True, I was scared of a lot of things when I was a kid, but with the geese I think it was justified.

This week we visited some friends who have two geese. These birds enjoy a pampered lifestyle that Mother Goose herself would have envied. They live in their own custom-built house and have the run of the yard, where they bully—er, supervise—two dogs and a flock of chickens. They are fed well and even get extra treats in the form of dog food.

Not only are they well provided for in terms of food and shelter, they have their emotional and social needs met, as well. While she ate her supper, the goose was carrying on what certainly sounded like a real conversation with her servant—er, owner. And of course, neither goose nor gander has the slightest worry about someday ending up as Christmas dinner.

These birds have no reason whatsoever to be foul-tempered.

Yet, as we walked across the yard with our hostess, the geese apparently decided we were trespassers. My first clue was the noise behind me—a discordant combination of unoiled hinge and barking pit bull with asthma. I turned, and there was the goose, wings spread and bill open, in full threatening cry. The gander was a safe distance behind her, making less strident squawks that no doubt meant, “Atta girl, dear; I’m with you all the way.” They kept coming in a slow-motion chase that made me wish for a nice, stout stick.

This display of avian aggression was enough to intimidate even an adult. Then I imagined myself as a toddler, with that hissing beak and thrusting head at my own eye level. No wonder I was terrified.

And this is the critter that represents children’s nursery rhymes? It’s hard to imagine her as the kindly Mother Goose telling little kids a story.

But if she told them to sit down and be quiet, I bet they wouldn’t argue.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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