Monday, June 20, 2016

Sixty is a Serious Number

Even the most mathematically obtuse among us cannot avoid some numbers.

For instance:  April 15 when the taxman takes his pound of flesh. December 25, Christmas and December 31, New Year's, which come around every year, days of celebration, of remembering the past and anticipating the future. Independence Day, July 4, when flags fly and fireworks sparkle. These are common ground, dates and numbers impressed into our heritage and vocabulary.

Then there are personal numbers, the ones writ only on your heart, tied inextricably by some inner measure of significance: when you learned to ride a bike or caught your first fish, your first paycheck,  your first car, your first child...your last child, your anniversary.....

Anniversary.  An anniversary, unlike a birthday, is not an inevitable portion of the human condition.  It takes two to have an anniversary....and the more anniversaries accrued, the greater the sum of accommodations, compromises, deaf ears, bit tongues, comfortable silences, and unspoken understandings accumulated.

Any anniversary is an accomplishment. After one year of marriage you get to eat freeze dried cake.  What?  More leftovers? Doesn't seem like much of a reward for 365 DAYS of adaptation and transformation.  There's no way to build this thing called marriage by following a checklist or bullet points; like Johnny Cash's Lincoln, it takes years, adding one piece at a time.  And if the end result has one headlight on the left and two on the right...well, at least the thing moves.

By the time a marriage has achieved the sixty year mark, it's a classic.  I always read  articles about wedding anniversaries, especially if there is a photo included.  Doesn't matter whether the photo is a black and white a half century or more old, or a church directory picture of a pair of seasoned oldsters. Either way, these couples bring to mind Proverbs 16:31:

Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.

Grandma and Grandpa Hurst celebrated their 60th anniversary in 1987.  Their fiftieth anniversary was the first family event I attended as a soon to be Hurst: at the time, it seemed there were hundreds of folks at the Farmers and Valley bank wishing to celebrate with them, but that could be memory playing tricks on a young and anxious bride-to-be hoping not to embarrass herself immediately.  But their sixtieth anniversary was a smaller get together. Inevitable, I guess.  I took a picture that day: Grandpa in his summer light blue suit and Grandma in a jewel blue dress; they are both smiling and, I'm sure, happy to have their family around a big table with them,even if it was just the Korner Kitchen.

Some people were too little to sit at the table
And some people were more into balloons
My folks used their prerogative as honorees to move their sixtieth celebration from the 5th of June to the 4th of July, giving the family yet another reason to add significance and fireworks to an already auspicious occasion.  Needless to say, with kids and fireworks, horseshoes and rocky creeks...and at least five photographers...the event was well recorded for posterity.

This week Millie and Charlie will share their sixtieth anniversary with a crowd of friends and family. I'm not going out on a limb to say there will be stories told and noise and small children underfoot and plenty of food.  The Community Building will spill over onto the back porch and down the hill when, by special dispensation of the City of Tarkio, we shoot off fireworks down at the Rodeo Grounds.  No doubt there will be a few party crashers by that time, but Millie and Charlie have ever been generous with their hospitality.

We commemorate more than the perseverance and partnership that sustains a marriage well over a half century.  After sixty years, we celebrate being together. We take time to give thanks for what we take for granted every other day: for Joshie days with Grandma Millie when he cooks mac'n cheese and other monstrosities, for another day of harvest with Charlie and some great grandkid in the combine with him, for every Sunday my father plays in the trio at church and my mom makes him peanut butter cookies.  Every big anniversary gives us a chance to be thankful for all the little moments we don't measure.  

Let's celebrate them all!

Actually, Joe Biden is not invited.....

Friday, June 10, 2016


I wish I had the score card. But I don't.
So I don't know exactly which team I watched from the center field stands the summer Busch Stadium II opened. I think the Cardinals won; it was a day game; it was really hot; and I have a vague feeling the opposing team wore red too. We attended the game with my mother's parents, who had driven over from Jeff City in their air conditioned 1964 Dodge with the push button automatic transmission, a car that filled me with wonder. We drove over early to avoid the heat in our 1964 teal blue "un"-air-conditioned Dodge Dart. It was an exciting day; the new Busch Stadium had only been open a month or so, joining the Gateway Arch, a monument that managed to be imposing and soaring simultaneously, in downtown St. Louis,

Like many important moments in life, the facts of the contest fade from memory, but the impression, the feeling, the sights, sounds, smell, and taste remain. I sat, stuck to my red seat, in the sun and the heat of June/July and watched players I'd never heard of from high above the biggest crowd I'd ever seen play a game I recognized, but had not yet learned. I wasn't a fan that day...yet.
The Cardinals won last night..I know because I listened to part of the game on KMA on my way to the HyVee; I checked the scores on my phone while I was working in the garden; and I saw the last inning and a half on Fox Sports Midwest on my television. But in 1967, I did what millions of other baseball fans did: I opened the sports page of the Chicago Tribune (after my father had finished!) and checked the box scores, the standings, and the top ten in batting average. Even if I could have pulled in every game on my AM radio, I was certainly too young to stay up until the bottom of the ninth!

My sister Laura and I scoured the racks of the local five and dime each week to see if a new shipment of baseball cards had arrived. We were avid if eccentric collectors during the late '60s and early '70s. Famous players like Hank Aaron or Brooks Robinson, Juan Marichal or Johnny Bench were always valued, but we were just as likely to trade cards between us based on whether we arbitrarily decided we liked the guy's personality based on one photo. Players with their hats blacked out were assumed to have been traded...or on their way out...and earned our sympathy based on those traits. Pathetic the hapless Chicago White Sox of 1970 who lost 106 games....touched our soft hearts and we adopted players like Walter 'No Neck' Williams (5'6"...maybe) and catcher Ed Hermann (11 years, .244 avg.) and Wilbur Wood (a knuckle baller who was the last pitcher to start both ends of a doubleheader) to root for from the stands of Comiskey Park when we attended our one game a year with free tickets the White Sox gave away for good grades.

Summer has a sound track, and like generations before, ours has always been baseball. Jack Buck was a welcome guest in our home every evening; I remember listening to Mike Shannon's first attempts in the radio booth and grimacing...while giving him an affectionate benefit of the doubt. I am flabbergasted to discover that has now been more than forty years ago. Baseball on the big screen is good TV. Baseball live with a crowd humming with anticipation, moths in the lights and all the ballet of the game spread before you is a symphony. But baseball on the radio ties the announcers to the fans in a way no other sport ever has. Our grandparents listened to baseball on their front porches...just like we do. Our parents listened on KMOX in their cars...just like we do. When Mike Shannon salutes the listeners in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, Fort Smith, Arkansas, or Shenandoah, Iowa, I know I'm at home, part of a past and present of fireflies, heat lightning, and home runs.

Baseball is our common denominator; a bridge between generations, politics, an ice breaker and conversation starter more reliable than the weather. Politics and religion are subjects verboten and deep rivalries can make for awkward small talk. Don't even bring up the designated hitter. But there is no friction or tension that can't be smoothed over at least temporarily by the universal disdain afforded a decision to sacrifice bunt with men on first and second. On that subject, all concur.
Baseball is indeed long...measured by the calendar and not the clock. There's time enough to believe your team will turn things around after the All Star break and get a streak going. Winning three in a row...or losing four in a row... is neither a ticket to the playoffs nor a reason to rend your jersey . Even though the season is long, we pine for the beginning of spring training games, yearning for the background noise of the crowd's chatter and the hawking of the beer vendors, sounding near enough to be wandering down the aisle of the greenhouse to hand us a cold Bud. And harvest nights on the combine are not so long and tedious when there's baseball to listen to after dark whether your team is post season bound or just playing out the string. But........ summer IS summer when the grill is smoking, the sprinkler is swooshing over the garden, and Blake and I are on the porch....listening to a baseball game on the radio.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Maui Postcard

In my mind, the three LLBean roller bags by the door are trunks with brass hasps and hinges ....or leather bound suitcases plastered with vintage luggage labels from vanished hotels and defunct airlines. I'm waiting for the knock on the door that will signal the beginning of the end of our Maui sojourn and a return to the logjam that is modern travel. No blast from a steamship's horn, no tripping down the gangway, just the endless stop and go of the TSA's dog and pony followed by the yoga positions of seats 28B and A.
BUT..... Before that there is Maui. Warm and moist, with a pervasive wind ranging from breeze to blast on the lose your hat scale. Any shady spot at any beach park on route 30 is crammed with vintage minivans, faded pickups fitted with surfboard racks, and untended fishing poles stuck deep into the sand. Maui waters are a playground; paddle boards and kayaks, snorkelers and surfers, sailers...and para-sailers. The ocean teems. Any postcard from Maui begins with a sunset and a beach: we tourists move to the sands as the shadows lengthen, stretching out selfie sticks, choosing an iconic palm tree for a silhouette, or perhaps a passing catamaran, moving toward a mooring before darkness falls. No sunset goes unrecorded! We even witness the apex of all cliches, the sunset beachside proposal. With a party of 50 eating lobster behind them, the happy couple may have been in a world of their own...but it was hardly a private moment....
Aloha, Maui, blazoned across postcards in fiery fonts: aloha and mahalo are courtesies bookending every conversation. The public face of Maui greets visitors graciously, but wander off the well beaten path and every drive is gated and every yard sports a 'no trespassing' sign. As a denizen of the rural routes and well acquainted with the stranger stranded where he should never have ventured, I understand. But it is difficult not to feel like we should climb back into our rental and head back to the main drag with its Snorkel Bob's and surf shops.
And the country roads of Maui are legendary for good reason. Consider the destinations: the switchbacks climbing five hundred feet at a time up the broad shield of Haleakala, the cars pulling around laboring bicyclists doing penance...or making a pilgrimage, take your pick, up the 10,000 foot climb to the summit. The landscape is other worldly: red and black cinder cones, cratered sands and boulders pocked with evidence of explosive force. The clouds form below your feet; the trip up wavers between bright sunshine and violet skies on one side of the mountain...and running the wiper switch and pulling your windbreaker close to escape the chilling wind and rain. At eight thousand feet, we pull off on the verge to watch two hang gliders prepare to launch. One stands on the brink, in the "set"position, waiting for the clouds to part and present a window of visibility. He gets a running, fast! he yells, and soon I am zooming my lens to find him riding currents I cannot see. When we reach the sunny slopes below, he is still high, high above us and we wonder how long he will glide and how far away he will land. The caravans of bikes zip down; one rider careens around a curve, hands held high over his head like he's riding a roller coaster at Worlds of Fun, not hugging the pavement on a cloud strewn cliff. Showboat....
Or wander the western highway north of the manicured lawns of resorts like the Ritz Carlton on Kapalua Bay and the precipitous fairways of championship golf courses like The Plantation. The wind is a wild thing, a poltergeist, knocking balls off the tees, sending drives back like boomerangs, and making the greens act like a fun house mirror. When I can forget my golf game, I am entranced by a landscape that takes turns pretending to be California.....or is it Italy?
Beyond the resorts, the road empties...fewer cars, no stores or gas stations, few houses, no restaurants. The waves foam white against cliffs of lava; landward, the vertical slopes overhang the road; every curve bears a warning for 'Falling Rock'. Gullies are a tangle of shrubbery, and the hills are punctuated with the twenty foot flowering stalks of what appears to be yucca on steroids. We have been dropped into a landscape of prehistory where I expect to confront giant tortoises around the next curve and pterodactyls swooping down to a primeval sea.

Certainly there are no restaurants. We are hungry and beginning to entertain the invitations of the hand lettered signs promising homemade banana bread and organic smoothies (well, maybe not desperate enough for the smoothies...) when one more right angle turn and POOF! The road evaporates...nothing but a golf cart sized track rutted into the hillside. Down in the valley, I can see a guy in a Kawasaki headed our way...hunger pangs vanish and we back and fill and back and fill to make a 180 and avoid a collision. This is Maui...believe it when the sign tells you maintenance ends.

In Kula, we enjoy lobster mac 'n cheese and Hubert's lemonade for lunch at the Bistro. Every restaurant offers local fish...ono, ahi, monchong. The non-GMO crowd is stridently obvious in bold letters and spray painted signs. Pasture raised eggs from free range tiny chickens are $8.99 a dozen in a grocery selling exotic bouquets of protea with a parking lot visited by vintage Dodge diesels that would feel at home in Westboro.

Next door is the Worcester Glassworks. The glassblower is finishing up his lunch, says his folks are at a show in New York, and he's been doing some trimming on the tropical shrubbery in the yard. The art glass evokes island life...seashells, spiny tumblers, sandy bottomed juice glasses, fish in all the hues of the rainbow, spun, drawn, twisted as if seen under the ripples of the sea. 

Maui is all color from the lavender jacaranda to the golden hibiscus to the popsicle hues of the tropical drinks. The glass artist tells me about the nearby winery: 'The wines not very good, but the grounds are beautiful!' The same can be said for the fruity drinks: Mai Tai, Lime in the Coconut, Lava Flow, Pina Colada, Coconut Grove. Not every one is good, but you feel obliged to taste them because they're so pretty!
Obviously, visitors to Maui bring their visions with them. There are more red Mustangs and red Camaros on the road than one sees on I-29. And the tops are down, even on an afternoon evenly divided between muted sunshine and pouring rain. I suppose those red convertibles are all standing in for the Ferrari in Magnum PI. Visitors dream of slashing the top off a coconut and drinking milk with a straw. Reality is the sign on the dumpster at Halfway to Hana, a snack shop...well, halfway to Hana: "Do not dump whole coconuts in here or on this property ". Guess coconuts don't taste as good as frozen drinks with umbrellas in them....
I am as prone to romance the island as anyone riding in a convertible. But I bring my essence of Maui home in concentrated form: a tiny scrimshaw tooth and a glass fish the hues of coffee and turquoise. Glass is born of fire and heat, a reminder of the volcanic origins of Maui's mountains and coast. The scrimshaw is a tooth mounted on wood bearing a tall ship, sails full of wind, and a honu, the Hawaiian sea turtle, swimming up to the surface. The tall ship is history, an emblem of all those who made Maui the melting pot it is.....and the honu is an symbol of Maui's legendary origins and good luck. I saw two turtles while hiking off the coast....the scrimshaw will always remind me of that walk.
 Luau or Lahaina, volcano sunrise or beach sunset, sugar cane fields or free range chicks: you will find your own Maui in your memories and souvenirs.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cuppa Joe

"Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.".........Casablanca, 1942
Coffee changed my life.
Without the 10 cent bottomless pot of coffee and the all night hours at the Interstate Pancake House out on Business Loop 70, there might not have been the "beautiful friendship" that evolved into romance, a wedding, and now, nearly forty years of coffee in the morning, coffee on the road, coffee by firelight, coffee on the front porch....well, you get the picture.

The coffee at the Interstate Pancake House had two things going for it: it was hot and it was cheap.  The mugs were truck stop solid with a permanent caffeine ring in the bottom; the coffee was an odd combination of tasteless and bitter, so much so that we poured enough of the soybean gruel they served up for creamer to fill the cup to the brim.
Dating Blake made me a coffee drinker...after a fashion.  As a broke college student,  I bought the Safeway version of instant coffee and boiled water in the kettle. Taster's Choice was a splurge.  Starbucks may have been brewing for half a decade in Seattle, but the coffee at the Union at MU still tasted of styrofoam and the metal urns in which it boiled from 7 a.m. til closing time.
I'm pretty certain we received a Mr. Coffee brewer as a wedding present: Mr. Coffee had been around since 1974.  But the pot must not have been real durable; by the time we were living in the little house in the bottom, I had a real "old school" drip style tin coffeepot sitting on the burner in the morning, gurgling away until we finished the pot or the smell of burnt coffee drove me out of the kitchen.  As a means of coffee prep, it would never pass muster with the connoisseurs whose beverage must be prepared and served at a precise temperature.  The pot lacked the comforting and fragrant bubble and pop of a percolator, a sound and scent indelibly linked in my memory to church kitchens.  But...we had graduated to three pound cans of Folger's at that point, which made the brew smell like real coffee and not something brown reconstituted from space age freeze dried crystals.  We were mainstream; we were solid citizens, bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steaming cup of "the best part of waking up" with the Wall Street Journal on the side.
 "Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all.” ― David Lynch

So imagine my dismay, years later, when I purchased a blue can of Maxwell House coffee in  Nashville, ("good to the last drop..") in an attempt to serve the local grounds to some writers exploring the many facets of that great city, only to have my pot of coffee greeted with disdain by the East Coast opinion makers and consumers of the group.  What an uneducated naif, a tasteless provincial, a benighted primitive from the dark center of the continent!  After we got over the embarrassment, we succumbed to social pressure the next visit to a Barnes and Noble and waited in line for our first Starbucks coffee.

Anonymous Quote: “A cup of gourmet coffee shared with a friend is happiness tasted and time well spent.”

And thus ensued any number of pleasant hours in a short but golden era of bookstore browsing:  a hardcover for edification, some paperbacks for pleasure, a mocha or cappuccino to sweeten the scalding blackness of the brew and warm the drive home from the city.  Alas!  The bookstores are gone, replaced by browsing for titles at all hours day and night via Amazon and the featherlight medium of coursing photons.  While hard copies are rare, hot beverages have flourished, and we former consumers of Casey's go cups now search for coffee shops, not truck stops, as we travel.

Yes, after our penny pinching origins, Blake and I have joined the coffee aristocracy: a Bunn for full pots on Sunday mornings, a Keurig for late night cups of caf for Blake, and decaf or herb tea for me, a bright red grinder to create the strong brews we are partial to, and to entertain the grandkids while they "help" make a cuppa for their grandpa.  Finally, a SECOND Cardinal Red Keurig at the greenhouse for Blake's birthday: he's not the easiest person to buy for, but this gift is a winner.

Sydney Smith (1771-1845) said, “If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee; it is the intelligent beverage.”

It was Sir James Mackintosh who said that, “The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.”
Black for breakfast.... or after supper.  In a combine .....or in a china cup. From contemplation to conversation, relaxation to reflection, coffee has been a thread weaving together the fabric of our life.

Flash Rosenberg wrote that, “I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.