Tuesday, June 23, 2015


I can see her now.

Laura and I are having a mid morning snack...maybe an Oreo or a handful of Pretzel Stix, maybe some Koolaid, or perhaps a real treat, a Fizzy, the tablet plopped into cold water in one of those jewel toned aluminum tumblers.  Kid food for the '60s; bright colored, effervescent, and tasting faintly of dissolved metals.  Or perhaps I just imagined that?

But my mother is perched gracefully on a stool at the divider my father built in our suburban home to create a kitchen and a dining room.   In my mind's eye, I picture a plastic tumbler of Pepsi on the counter there, but I don't need my imagination to know she's reading a book.

There were always books.  The folio art books, the German Bible, the volumes of popular fiction by Ernest K. Gann (Fate Is the Hunter) and James Michener, the colorful slip covers of the The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea , all housed on the dining room side of the divider.  The Complete Sherlock Holmes and a hefty volume of Mark Twain were within easy reach on Saturday afternoons whenever my mom popped a big bowl of popcorn.  There was an antique volume on the Great War between two monkish bookends on the bottom shelf of a writing desk in the living room and two volumes of Arnold Toynbee's Study of History.  My father owned Will and Ariel Durant's multi volume Story of Civilization even before the series was completed.  These stately books seemed to me to lend gravity to our suburban existence with their mere presence; Alpha Bits or Sugar Smacks consumed in the same room with the Durants were transformed into brain food.

My parents were the smartest people I knew. I innately realized that this house of books and music was a good place in which to grow up.  And there was no better guide to the wide world of the mind's eye than my mother. It seemed to me that there wasn't a book she hadn't read. My mother was both example and inspiration, leading me down the Book Trail and opening the doors to the old friends she knew and loved and wanted me to meet and love too.

When I see Abbie or Lizzie, Gabe or Aaron, nestled on the couch, oblivious to what anyone else is doing...and even what they should be doing, I am eight years old again on a hot summer's day walking up the narrow sidewalk to the Orland Park Library.  It was a mere four rooms and the cooling effects of the window unit didn't reach much beyond the first room where the librarian waited at her desk to check for our library cards. With the blinds pulled against the hot sun and one light on the ceiling, it was so dim I could barely read the titles on the wall devoted to children's books. Like the grandkids, I read my favorites over and over...all the books by Marguerite Henry and all the books by Walter Farley (yes, there was a horse phase!) I picked out Newberry winners and Nancy Drew mysteries, science fiction by Madeline LÉngle and Ursula LeGuin. Our copies of An Old Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins had belonged to my mother and were coming unstrung and unglued at home, but, old fashioned girl that I was, I borrowed the sequels to these classics from the library.

As I got older but not old enough for truly adult novels, my mother pointed me to more serious and challenging books she read as a girl....I read my way through thick oilcloth bound volumes of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, finally working my way up to the thickest book of them all...The Count of Monte Cristo.  It was short and stout and bound in bright yellow.

I'm still a sucker for the magazine articles that appear seasonally, touting the best summer reads for beach, or travel, novels or history.  My perennial vision of ideal summertime includes a canvas book bag behind the seat of the car and a long week of evenings to browse through.  Convenience makes Amazon the library of choice these days as we anxiously await the summer releases of our favorite thrillers, but Amazon also makes it possible to sample and browse for free, to escape the heat...or the doldrums....just like we did years ago amid the dark and stuffy...and slightly musty...shelves of our small town library.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's a Jolly Holiday: Father's Day Wishes by Way of Mary Poppins

Oh, it's a jolly holiday with you , Bert
Gentlemen like you are few...

A vanishing breed, that's me...

 Though you're just a diamond in the rough, Bert
Underneath your blood is blue. 

Common knowledge

You'd never think of pressing your advantage.
Forbearance is the hallmark of your creed.
A lady needn't fear when you are near

Your sweet gentility is crystal clear

Oh, its a jolly holiday with you, Bert,
A jolly, jolly holiday with you!
.....from the Disney movie, Mary Poppins

Remember Bert the Chimney Sweep?  How I loved Dick Van Dyke in that role...whimsical, tender, comical, charming. Rub the grime off Bert and you knew he would shine solid gold, eccentricities and all. Even Mary Poppins, she of "practically perfect in every way" favored him with her approval. 

Father's Day is a jolly holiday: traditionally a time for golfing or fishing, or baseball or barbeque, placed on the calendar deep in the heart of June with all the opportunities of the summer's best...and the option to nap in one's recliner if summer presents its worst. Certainly, I wish a full menu of these ordinary pleasures for the fathers I know and love.

But these guys deserve recognition beyond a good steak and an afternoon nap.  We may fall a tad short of "sweet gentility" here in the hinterlands, but scratch under the grime of these fathers and you will find faith and persistence, calluses and self discipline, humor, patience and the willingness to bear any burden for their family, friends, church, and community.  

Work hard; play hard; rest easy.....

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"The Story of your Life is...." Your Pickup (with credit to Tom T Hall)

That line comes to me as I peer through the windshield at the 5 foot of white gravel that constitutes the range of my headlights. I drive slowly anyway as the stillness of an summer evening cooling down to dew point holds the road dust near the ground. But I don't increase my speed once I reach the blacktop; the glass prisms on my decade old Dodge are yellowed with the automobile equivalent of cataracts. Its difficult to switch gears without outrunning your night vision, but I guess its just as well that the red pickup and I are neck and neck in terms of age and mileage.

When I meet someone on the road who says 'Well, I've scared the deer away for you'. I laugh. 'Remember what I'm driving! There is no place to put any deer damage on this truck! You want your kids safe on prom night? This is the truck they should be driving." Its no exaggeration. Fourteen years and 300,000 miles of farm roads, hitching, unhitching and pulling a fifth wheel, and Lord knows how many blown out tires on I-80 have given the red pickup the complexion of a demolition derby.

But, as Tom T. Hall notes, the story of your life is in your face. Its written there in little tiny lines. The stories of our life are written in our vehicles, the consequence of the decisions made to "drive it one more year unless something REALLY bad happens..." And the next year's decision, "Well, we never drive it very far anyway; and its certainly not worth anything." Until it becomes almost a source of pride to look at our fleet of rattling old diesel pickups, tallying the miles and forgetting the years.

As a family, we've never really been car people. The car we drove on our honeymoon was a sterling example of American hubris and shoddy design, a baby blue Ford Torino with a minuscule back window and an engine that drank gas and oil in roughly equal quantities. It was the '70s, you know. My parents had a 25 ft. long Plymouth Fury, but while I was at college, it was replaced with a tiny little yellow Toyota. Change was in the wind.

The wind of change for us was the arrival of a baby girl and, shortly thereafter, another baby girl. Your treasured offspring do not ride in noxious Ford Torinos. We were young, we were broke, and we ordered the most stripped down model of the boxy little Ford Fairmont available. We had two car dealers in Tarkio back then, you know. Our concession to comfort was air conditioning; our concession to style was to choose the color red. It had three speed on the column, vinyl bench seats and four doors. We were a family; it was our family car.

That little Ford lasted a long time, given the standards of the day. We drove it six years and 103,000 miles. By the time we traded it, only two doors would open and shut and only the passenger window worked anymore. We drove that car to South Dakota, Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Kitty Hawk, Cooperstown, as well as the country roads of Atchison county. Our kids wore their seat belts, but they were far from the 40 something pounds and inches required by regulation these days.

Blake's pickups were not so long lived. The red and white Ford he and Kevin shared when we married was replaced by a blue Chevy when the Ford ceased to perform any of the functions a vehicle should without human intervention. We borrowed Grandpa's "new" pickup the week before Lee's due date because the roads were so bad and Blake's pickup too unreliable. The blue Chevy perished in the driveway when it overheated and the aluminum engine block splintered.  It was followed by a 1982  two tone gold Ford, the color scheme just as ugly then as it sounds today.  The '80s were bad years for farming as well as pickups; we endured that pickup for eight interminable years and three engines before what was left of the thing became scrap in 1990. 

I could go on.  In a triumph of hope over experience, our love affair with diesels has led to a stubborn refusal to admit that diesel engines and passenger car transmissions are incompatible even after two different cars of different makes in two different decades caught fire and stranded us along I-29.  But our loyalty to Dodge diesel pickups is also sentimental...our aging...and now aged...fleet of grumbling giants would be put out to pasture were they flesh and blood.  When it comes to our pickups, the decades of service take on the gravity of a long business partnership...and its difficult to ditch your partner even if the interior is redolent of mouse and the fabric on the ceiling drifts around your hat like cobwebs.

 Blake and I approach an anniversary with a zero on the end in a couple of years. The tally on the old Dodges is 47 years this summer.  Blake talks about getting a new pickup to drive around, one with paint and satellite radio, doors that seal and an air conditioner that cools. 

One that has a tailgate.

But.. he hasn't done it yet.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Where Time Stands Still

"Baby where's that place where time stands still
I remember like a lover can
But I forget it like a leaver will"
(Mary Chapin Carpenter)
I can answer that question; I've been there. That place where time stands still is way up north, beyond the reach of direct flights or RVs. You must cross the Straits on a ferry and see your luggage arrive on a four wheeled wagon behind a team of shaggy hoofed horses. It might be accompanied by some mulch and a weed whacker....or a 12 pack of Bud Light and 24 rolls of Cottonelle. But once you've pulled up to the entrance of the Grand Hotel, you are subject to the rules and aesthetics and expectations of another time. Let go of the present: it's hurry, it's preoccupations, it's media barrage, it's truncated and compressed timeline. Time lingers; time stops, hesitates, lingers and moves along with reluctance on Mackinac Island.
It is by design, of course. The first horseless carriage arrived on the island, then spluttered and smoked and coughed to such an extent that the Carriage operators complained vociferously. They were either genuinely annoyed on behalf of their animals...or perhaps prescient about the way their island transportation monopoly would be affected by self determination. Either way, they had power at the polls and voted the pesky gasoline monsters off the island, Survivor style.

With automobiles forbidden, the air is ripe with horsy smells and jingling with horsy sounds. Tourists travel to their destinations by the dozen behind blinkered pairs of patient behemoths. Their suitcases and carryons cling together by virtue of shrink wrap or balance precariously on the handlebars of practiced cyclists. Spring is barely come this last day of May. The visitors in shorts and tees appear to be out of sync not just with the seasons, but also with the era; the bellmen are red capped and red caped; the guests are handed actual keys instead of the ubiquitous magnetic entry cards.

  Etiquette is observed at the Grand Hotel. There is HighTea with a harpist performing for those wishing to partake and those curious to observe the ritual. Etiquette is the kind of stodgy old fashioned word appropriate to a place where being seated for the evening meal means walking down a mirrored aisle fit for an audience with the Queen.

Downtown Mackinac has its quota of fudge makers and t shirt stores....frequented by those, no doubt, who failed to add a sweatshirt or fleece to their summer resort wear. But walk the Pontiac trail along the West Bluff and enter the 19th century when well-heeled Midwesterners brought their families north to vacation and rich ones built gingerbread palaces with open porches to catch the summer breezes and glassed sunrooms to turn them away. On this day, the homes are silent save for a couple of guys who might be on perennial painting duty. Fish scales, spool-and-spindle, sun bursts, or festoons require the kind of care and artful makeup of an aging diva. All this for a short summer that left the mansions to face the frigid icy winters after their people deserted the island in October.

There's not much suspense on Mackinac, just the stately rhythm of time passing to the accompaniment of horses' hooves, the wind in the flags, the cries of the gulls and the unrushed greetings of those who meet afoot or on two wheels on the narrow paths. It is a place apart, where past and present coexist, where cell phones work, but courtesy keeps them on buzz, where you expect Patrick Swayze in the ballroom and the sparkle of the evening meal evokes the Titantic.

And yesterday pedaling down 4th Avenue, between the stalls and the bookshops
The sepia tones of a lost afternoon cradled a curio storefront
And inside the air was thick with the past, as the dust settled onto his heart
And here for a moment is every place in the world and ideas are like stars.
(Mary Chapin Carpenter)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Good 'n Plenty

Here's our supper this past Saturday night. There's some iceberg lettuce shipped from far away; some blue cheese and dressing courtesy of the food giant, Kraft; Kettle Cooked Jalapeño Cheddar Chips with a banner on the bag trumpeting 40 PERCENT LESS FAT; a brat burger grilled by moi decorated with Grandma Millie's artificially green home canned sweet pickles and otherwise artfully condimented with HyVee ketchup and artisan sweet hot mustard. The wine is a mellow Sangiovese from Italy...tasty and inexpensive as befits the season of burgers and buns, but missing the appellation of "local" by an ocean or two.

Why should you care about what we ate this Saturday evening? Because this plate, with its burger sized smiley face, breaks all kinds of laws laid down by today's food police. The meat is processed...and grilled over a fragrant smoky charcoal fire. I bought the white bread buns on sale for 77 cents, but cancelled out that economy with the four ounces of blue cheese crumbles. I didn't have to forage for this meal...or skin it...or dig it; I picked up the fixin's in about 15 minutes off the shelves of our Atchison County HyVee.

Burgers and chips.  Fast and tasty.  And a bad taste in the mouths of what historian Rachel Laudan has dubbed Culinary Luddites.  What distinguishes a Culinary Luddite from those of us who eat our quarter pounder pluses with relish?  Her description follows:

"We hover between ridicule and shame when we remember how our mothers and grand­mothers enthusiastically embraced canned and frozen foods. We nod in agreement when the waiter proclaims that the restaurant showcases the freshest local produce. We shun Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Above all, we loathe the great culminating symbol of Culinary Modernism, McDonald’s — modern, fast, homogenous, and international."

Do you feel guilt? Have you lost your appetite? Wait because the historian is about to deliver the inconvenient truths about the foods we humans have eaten for most of history.

Far from enshrining the nostalgic family grouping around the heaping kitchen table, Laudan reminds us of the kinds of people who ate fast food in the past: shepherds and soldiers and hunters. Cooking food was dangerous in close quarters and fuel was as expensive as the food itself: street vendors provided fast hot fried convenience foods from China to Mexico.

Laudan dismisses the notion that folks in the country savored the best of the land, developing the tasty ethnic dishes we associate with artisanal food. On the contrary, peasants were subsistence farmers, eking out an uncertain unhealthy existence on what was left to eat after the more affluent society in the cities took the bulk and best of the harvest. No peasant kitchen concocted Italian lasagna or Chinese mooshu pork. No, "traditional"dishes like these were born of urban wealth and urban plenty.

It bears remembering, whenever the ugly hoary head of Culinary Luddism rears up, that the term natural, so overused and unfocused as to be banal, was not a compliment until modern times. Grains were indigestible; fruits were bitter and many vegetables were downright poisonous. It took the trial and error of human ingenuity to process natural foods until they were safe and generations of observation and selection to create foods that were tasty. In the author's words:

"Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods."

Finally, despite the pleasure I take in picking my seasonal tomatoes and the convenience of my local HyVee, let us not forget how paltry our tables would be without the benefit of trade: before markets, before caravans loaded with spices, before tea from the east and ships bringing strange plants like potatoes and tomatoes from the west. “Local” is an attractive construct that sounds better than it tastes and primarily serves to limit choices, not expand them.

Before we consign my tasty burger, crunchy chips, and loaded iceberg lettuce to a postmodern food oblivion....let's listen to what Rachel Laudan has to say about our recent food history:

"Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day."

There is room enough in our plentiful food system for the food of the elite: artisanal dishes with names larger than their serving size artfully arranged and priced for a king. There's nothing wrong with fortifying 4 year old Josh a big bowl of boxed Mac 'n Cheese, the orange kind that he likes, food everyone can afford. The Culinary Luddites envision a food history that never existed. Those of us in the business of growing food in the real world know how difficult it is just to produce enough.

"For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Vanishing Points

Anyone ever tear out the postage paid cards offering free vacation guides and roadmaps for prospective Great American Roadtrippers in the Better Homes and Gardens magazines in the checkout aisle? I was that kid, a sucker for free stuff, for maps, for sights to see and roads not taken. I diligently sent off for every free offer from any state from any magazine my mom subscribed to; magazines at the doctor's or dentist's or car dealer's were also fair game. Never mind that our family trips were predestined: no need for Delaware, Florida, or Maine. The maps themselves had power.
When the Missouri road map arrived, we unfolded to the listing of cities and counties to check the status of a place we had never been, never seen: a site as mythical as Brigadoon in our family lore. The state of Missouri listed every village, every borough, and, I assume, every wide spot off a lettered highway, including our very favorite town, a little place called Bado down in Texas county.

What made Bado special? With a population of just four people, it was the smallest town in the state of Missouri. We were entranced; not only with the notion of a place the size of our family being a town, but the fact that Missouri's highway map would recognize not just cities like St. Louis....but also a town like Bado, so unimaginably small that we figured its buildings must all be empty! The map told us Bado was a place, but it was also an idea, a coming together of the lines of perspective, a myth, a mist, that would disappear if we didn't check on it every year....or if we drove down to Texas county to find it.

Out here on the prairie, the wind, the rain, and time itself join forces to change landscapes until nothing is left but a name. A forgotten rural schoolhouse once stood south and east of Westboro along the gravel road I drive to work. For a while the rubble of bricks turned up at planting time, but the foundation is one with the soil any more.
There are a number of signs along the two miles of route O near the site of the old schoolhouse, put up several years back by a proprietor of Fourteen Pines farm. Alas, a casual traveler can no longer pick out the home place; age and disease have left nothing of the statuesque pines. I have enjoyed the place names on the signs in the fence rows, but they are deteriorating as well and will soon be as much a mystery as the name 'Rosebud' on a sled.
Farmsteads grow up and flourish, are absorbed or vanish; town centers migrate with the traffic patterns and schools consolidate, but while populations wax and wane, our cemeteries remain.
We honor those that came before: those who settled this country, built this country, fought for this country and ultimately came back to this ground to their earthly rest. Our cemeteries are beautiful places this time of year with the Stars and Stripes whipping in the wind and the peonies and irises in bloom. Our past is there...in all the names that seem familiar and the remembrances laid lovingly and dutifully alongside. But our future is there as well; for every tended cemetery is a mark of civilization and faith that our community will still be on the map in years to come.

A village in Morris Township. It was established during the Civil War (c. 1863) by Mr. Clabe Groce. The present (1933) postmaster has always lived within a mile of the office and has heard that it was so called because it was settled during the bad years. The name was used long before it became a post-office in 1888. (--Place Names.)
Bado was located at Section 34, Township 30 N, Range 11 W, on Highway M, south of Fairview, and north of YY.