Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Background Noise

The prairie rim is no where as evident as on northbound route N out of Mound City and just across the Atchison county line.  If you want an evocative landscape, pick a hilltop, make sure no one is coming up behind you, stop, pull off onto what passes for a shoulder and turn off your vehicle. If you stopped today, you heard a cacophony of geese as the blues, the snows, and the Canadas passed overhead at altitudes just above treetop to stratospheric.  They veed into an infinity seemingly as distant as an MC Escher composition. Watching them pass over, the dun colored fields and the silvery washed skies made me feel I was part of an animated Andrew Wyeth painting.  Off and on through the day the geese called, at times loud enough to be heard above the ventilation fans and even the click-click of the seeder.  It was a soothingly harmonic accompaniment to the otherwise mechanical clatter than epitomizes the natural processes of growing plants in a greenhouse.

While gardening itself is a peaceful pursuit, characterized by the quietly rhythmic and repetitive motions of hoeing and the musical patter of water upon soil and leaf, growing the raw material for a garden is anything but.  One day in January only the winter wind drives the last remaining elm leaves skittering across the ground and the next the silent night has an undercurrent of blowers and ventilation fans dispersing toasty BTUs through thin skinned bubbles of six millimeter poly plastic more drafty than the walls of our 100 year old house.  During the day, electronic controllers tell the heaters to shut off and on, the aluminum louver to slowly creak open and just as reluctantly close, and the whine of a 48" or 52" ventilation fan to slowly crank up to maximum airspeed.  In the gutter connected greenhouse, interior fans start and stop in unison; their coordination and underlying hum brings nothing to mind as much as a beehive.  There are so many in the 19000 sq ft space that the cessation of their undercurrent makes the big ventilation fans relatively undetectable.  All this machinery and energy just to emulate the God given warmth of natural springtime!

The other big noisemaker is the transplanter.  There is something almost Seussian about this contraption with its telescoping metal fingers that pick up and grab the tiny green seedling so rudely pushed out of its cozy niche by yet another push rod.  All this in and out has a sound track of whooshing air, kind of a calliope/steam engine hybrid caused by the air compressor rattling off and on.  Think Billy Joel's 'Allentown'.

As cookie cutter and turn key as this all sounds, growing plants in our greenhouses is still more art than science, more touchy feely than technology.  We are as tuned to the equinox as the geese.  We start looking for bugs on our plants about the same date every year. We know the sparrows will attack the first crop of dianthus seedlings and the mice will munch the verbena.  I can guarantee rodents will attack my sweet peppers, especially the banana peppers, and never touch the fuzzy tomatoes. Before the end of the greenhouse season, we will lose one batch of the big headed African marigolds to some benighted bunny living under the pallets.  Instead of golden blossoms, we will have pruned bushes.  Last year Ryan took umbrage at sharing with the rabbits and bagged a couple; much less destructive than turning the dogs loose to chase 'em down!

Growing the flowers of summer and the transplants for your salsa and salad is a hot, dusty,  and loud business.  That is, when its not cold or sodden or muddy.  Even the most hands on of agricultural tasks requires a big boost from the machine age.  Something to think about when contemplating your prospective return to nature.

Like most farm folks I have my favorite parts of the work day.  Opening the door to number eight on a Saturday afternoon in March, turning on a pre-season baseball game, and shaking tomato seeds into the seeder has been a ritual of my life for nearly twenty years. The essence of spring is the scent of the first pansy blooms borne on the warm air exhausted from the big house. But the signature sound of our business is that of the antique Sundermann floor heaters on a early spring night: first the fan motor, then the click of  the gas valve and the reassuring roar of the blue flame inflating the plastic tube that runs the length of the houses. When I walk out to my car in the dark, the afternoon wind calmed and the silent stars above and hear that sound, I know all is right in greenhouse world.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Honky Tonk Heroes Like Me

Driving down Highway 63 tonight with a steady stream of oncoming headlights and that old white line clearly visible, I was in no danger of relaxing or drifting off.  But if I had been driving home on an empty four lane late at night with no company and nothing to keep me on edge, I could have solved my problems by dialing up Pandora and clicking on my Wayne Hancock station.  Wayne's band is unreconstructed, undeconstructed, wailin', growlin', slidin', and poundin' out tunes about loneliness, drinkin', cheatin', and honky tonkin'.  What makes Wayne Hancock a great road companion is counting the number of highways and byways in his songs:  87 southbound, highway 54, I-40 east, 59 to New Orleans, 35 to Minnesota, I-10 west through Johnson City.  Mapping a life on the road.

Our road tripping family played a corollary of this game: heading west on I-70 provoked a rendition of 'Abilene' by the guy driving (Prettiest town that I've ever seen! Women there don't treat you mean, Down in Abilene, My Abilene).  Randy Travis let us go 'Roamin' Wyomin'.  'Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come', we would barely break a sweat. To 'Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie' was cause for celebration.

Like Wayne the Train, a 'real nice room with a radio and tv' , a thunderstorm and a neon sign brings a smile to my face.  Blake and I courted to the tunes to Waylon and Willie and the boys.  Our little house on the bottom reverberated with 'Shot Gun Willie' and 'Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys' vinyl 33s played on my grandmother's hand me down hard maple hi fi stereo.  Blake always relished his role as fatherly alarm clock, alternating 'Revelry' on his trumpet with renditions of 'Your Cheating Heart' that would truly bring a tear to anyone's eye.  It didn't take too many of those performances for the kids to pop up without additional incentive.

Last night Waylon followed Wayne on the radio.  Dropping all pretenses of dignity and musicality, we joined in on southbound 63.  Youth and middle age,  winning and losing,  memories in common past and future, road tripping together:

'Where did it go, the good Lord only knows,
Seems like it was only yesterday...'

Monday, February 13, 2012

New York State of Mind

We know better, but there is a long queue at the taxi stand, so we allow ourselves to be hustled over to the black Towncar for our trip from LaGuardia to the City.  We've dropped out of the sky over miles of water; we haven't oriented ourselves north or south, east or west.  But that's part and parcel of the (jaunt, junket,pilgrimage) we are on. Euterpe, the muse of music, song and poetry, has lured us to New York. We have a dream.....

Once over the Queensboro bridge, the cityscape changes.  I long to drag my camera out and record the street scenery; I itch to photograph the architecture, the traffic, the dog walkers, the shop windows, the crush, the hustle.  But I resist and attempt to commit to memory Park Avenue, Madison Avenue as we pull alongside the curb behind another cab under the black and gold livery of the Carlyle.  

There are two doormen at each door.  In bowler hats.  Inside the revolving door are entrances for the Cafe Carlyle and Bemelman's Bar.  Up the stairs is an art gallery.  Down a short flight I see

"Exotic, elegant d├ęcor by legendary decorator Renzo Mongiardino sets the stage for a private retreat favored by the rich, the famous and the beautiful since the hotel's inception. Inspired by the sultan's dining room at the Topikapi Palace in Turkey, The Gallery is divided into two tiers.
The upper gallery is wrapped in deep red, hand-painted wallpaper. Banquettes made of antique kilims and red-fringed velvet chairs invite lingering. The lower gallery features an intricate blue-and-gold wallpaper, inset with intaglio-like views of such landmarks as Venice's Church of the Saulte and Istanbul's Hagia Sophia."  
But no check in desk.  A young woman inquires solicitously if we are first time guests to the Carlyle?  She takes my roller bag and heads around the corner through a gracious yet formal room of polished black and white marble floors, gold settees and an intricate compass pointed rug.  A well coiffed woman looks up from her reading by the fireplace.  We may be lost, but we look good; Blake is suited and I am safely, conventionally in basic black leather coat, boots and slacks.  After a trip to the wine country in California, my sister Laura advised us to wear black, when in doubt, and we would never be out of place. There is nothing colored in my carryon.
The lobby is small, no grand hall, no rental car desk, no bar, just two uniformed gents tending the desk and a small glass doored alcove where the concierge holds court amid rolled neck ties and maps  While we are encouraged to meet him (he's a character), we don't take advantage of his services because we have a date with Gershwin at the Richard Rodgers Theater down on 46th Street.  To cab? to walk?  We're starving and far too excited to take ourselves off the streets; the bowler hatted doorman points us to something...but our Midwestern ears don't comprehend and we take off toward the trees a block or two off: Central Park.  
Every brass plate on every building facing 5th Ave. belongs to an M.D.  These professionals mingle discreetly with residences.  The doormen are friendly enough, nodding and smiling as we walk by.  The day is comfortable for February and the park is animated with walkers, bikers, runners and dozens of prams and strollers of all shapes and conformations.  For the first, but not the last time, on our trip, I think, this is just how I thought it should be.
The carriages are lined up at the Grand Army Plaza, the ponies' livery festooned in red and white feathers, a cloud of pigeons pecking the cobblestones at their feet.  Folks are enjoying their bag lunches and a few line up at sandwich wagons.  The Plaza Hotel with its Sleeping Beauty towers beckons; we slip through the doors into the warmth and scents of the Plaza Food Hall.  Two little grande dames sip champagne while working folks kibbutz over bowls of stir fry and the barman is busy constructing cocktails.  We choose with care. I'm going with lamb kebab.  Blake need not look at a menu: its oysters for him.  My kebab comes with toast points: toast in Tarkio is never pointed!  
A quick check of google maps reassures us we have plenty of time to walk the mile or so down 7th Avenue.  Away from the sedate sidewalks of the Upper East side, weaving our way between delivery men and sightseers.  All these folks on their phones have better service than we do: something about the concrete canyons block reception for our i phones accustomed to wide open spaces.The apparent bustle has more to do with delivery or repair vans than the creeping bugs that are the yellow taxis. No wonder the streets are crowded!  Its called double parking.  Am I gawking?  I dearly hope not but I wish I could do a slow pirouette through the lucent sunshine and cold shadows and record the windows, the ornament, the cheap souvenir shops, the multi story, multi screen, brighter than life advertisements, the cabs and buses hawking hit Broadway shows.  

The Richard Rodgers theater is around the corner from Times Square a block or so. The queue is well down the street 40 minutes before show time.  Cabs and town cars are parked, backed up, dodging pedestrians.  There's time for coffee in the shadows of the Lunt-Fontanne theater, where Ghost, the musical, will open in March. These theaters don't glitter; a single vertical name announces their locations.  The glory of musical theater comes in some pretty plain brown wrappers in comparison to the extravagant promises and mesmerizing glitz of Times Square.  Still!  Look!  Down there is the Lion King!  Wait!  Can we catch the evening show for Anything Goes? How to Succeed? 

My vision of ladies in gowns and stoles and gents in hats is crushed.  The dress code for an afternoon matinee is: ordinary.  But it is gratifying to see little tiny matrons let out at the curb by the drivers of their black cars; we are entertained by accents not our own. The theater is not a palace, but the chandelier overhead could be cast in the Phantom of the Opera. A dozen women of a certain age arrange themselves in the row in front of us. The play before the play begins: where to put our coats...for this money there should be coat hooks...for this money we should be closer? The comments are delivered with an intonation that suggests the speakers are holding their noses and looking down them simultaneously.  Entrancing.   Behind and beside us a group of teenage girls discuss the musicals they have seen, attempting to give an impression of worldliness that is belied by their youthful complexions and well defined likes and dislikes. At intermission they express their views of the storyline ,the singers, the characters as if they were rabid fans at a sporting event. I have opinions too, but have made a conscious decision to be a blank slate in deference to the obvious efforts and talents of the professionals on the stage.  The action is so compressed; the emotions of the Gershwin songs are ripped from the characters as temptation, grief, remorse, and, against all odds, hope are carried as high as the chandelier by the soaring deliveries of both soloists and chorus.  At times I had to close my eyes to hear all the music. I am still carrying the melodies to bed with me at night. Is it possible to tire of 'Summertime'?
All the world is a stage as we exit the theater at twilight. The sky dials down as the curtain raises on the action on Times Square.  We are fortunate souls, choosing seats with a panorama view from the Bluefin  Diner.  Blake's first round of oysters is a memory so we entertain the notion of a menu.  Glory be!  A restaurant with caviar listed BY THE OUNCE!  A first, but we have no difficulty resisting temptation or the price tag.  We perch on metal stools; our table is translucent, glows with its own light, bringing life to our glass of red wine. Before our eyes, Times Square becomes a pulsing seven story surround sound stained glass window.  

Times Square is all about today; as we head back toward the Carlyle we walk back in time.  The Ed Sullivan theater sports a line a block long. The sidewalks of Central Park are full of women, children and prams in the fading day.  Art Deco towers bring Georgia O'Keeffe's skyscrapers to mind.  Even with traffic, the park seems quiet.  

The Carlyle is its own history.  Bemused, we ride up seven floors accompanied by an....elevator man?  I had to look the proper term up; I could also call him an elevator operator, or, if I were in Britain, a liftman.  Not a lot of call for these terms in Tarkio.  This one is not much for idle conversation: bored? discreet? bunions?

Bemelman's Bar is packed but we are nestled by the baby grand, a trio of fresh snacks at our elbow and a Ludwig Bemelman skyscraper   on the pillar at Blake's back. I am facing Chris Gillespie, the pianist so he sees, if not hears, our pleasure when he nestles the Bach toccata in D minor into Brubeck's 'Take Five'. Every table is full.  The famous murals are either golden in lamplight or neon blue in phone light. I make a mental note to come back in daylight to photograph the fanciful but civilized fauna on the walls, as well as the line of "twelve little girls" including Madeline.  Of course Blake has a martini; it even comes with three olives. If he would just share his olives, the evening would be perfect.  

I forgive him this small sin when he secures a reservation to hear Christine Ebersole across the hall in the Cafe' Carlyle.  After the humming activity of Bemelman's, the restaurant is hushed, plush and a little chilly.  The couple at the adjacent table is celebrating his 65th birthday.  They tell us the Carlyle is 'classic old New York'; they look like classic New Yorkers to me!  He could be a cross between Morley Safer and Jerry Stiller; she bears a resemblance to Dana Delany, who played Josephine in the movie Tombstone, and trained as an actress when she was younger. Apparently, she has a friend who is a good friend of Christine Ebersole, the cabaret singer tonight.  Our dinner companions consider it a compliment that we "fit in" so well with all these New Yorkers.  They know a "local" farmer, of course, outside of the city and she asks us if our "soy" is "GMC".  I admit I giggle just a bit when I answer that GMC is a truck; GMO is the acronym she wants.  We have grandkids; they have parrots that travel with them. Before the show begins, we watch a video of their parrots climbing around the neck rest of their vehicle.

 Before the lights dim, I have finished my lobster bisque.  

All I can say is "Wow-ee!
Looka where I am.
Tonight I landed, pow!
Right in a pot of jam.
I'd hear my buddies saying: 

"Crazy, what gives?

Tonight she's living like 

The other half lives!"

What a step up! Holy cow!

They'd never believe it,

If my friends could see me now!

(Sweet Charity and me)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Just an Old Fashioned Love Song

I don't love Valentine's Day.  Have I mentioned that before?  Like proms, like waiting to be picked for a baseball team, like watching the judge pass over your kid's 4H steer, Valentine's Day is more evidence of man's fall from grace, or the admonition that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.  There is little upside and tons of room for disappointment from unrealized, unrealistic expectations. Once you get past the age of cartoon characters, candy hearts with slogans, and decorating your own Valentine mailbox, the whole darned thing epitomizes the term 'superficial'.  Let's face it, if Valentine's day had an Ebenezer Scrooge, I would be it.
So sue me...

All that aside, I assure you I am a true believer in true love,up to and including the music folks gild with hearts and flowers as 'our song'.  When I was 15, prime time for romantic nonsense, Three Dog Night had a hit with 'Old Fashioned Love Song'.

Just an old-fashioned love song playin' on the radio
And wrapped around the music is the sound
Of someone promising they'll never go
You swear you've heard it before
As it slowly rambles on and on
No need in bringin' `em back,
`Cause they're never really gone

Just an old-fashioned love song
One I'm sure they wrote for you and me
Just an old-fashioned love song
Comin' down in 3-part harmony

Not exactly Elizabeth Barrett Browning, huh.  Well , it was easy to memorize and had a good hook back in the day.

  I heard 'Young Love' by the Judds at least 150 times in 1989 as the young girls in the basement of our farm house played Naomi and Wynona

Young love, strong love, true love 
It's a new love
They're gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah, these ties will bind
Young love.

Young love gets lots of attention.  How about some old fashioned love?

Happy Valentines Day to old lovers all.  One day, many years ago, we cleaned out boxes from the attic of our old farm house, boxes that had moved unopened and undisturbed from our house in Orland Park where they had undoubtedly lived unopened for a decade or more before that.  One of the boxes spilled open to reveal letters and some drawings in the tidy slanted script of my father.  There were lots of them, still folded in envelopes addressed to my mom.  We didn't read them; we didn't need to.  I am certain they are all long oxidized or discarded in the several moves my folks have made since then.  But they made me happy and still do.  I don't need to read my parent's letters to each other; I am happy merely knowing they exist.  These are folks who still perform daily kindnesses to each other after more than a half century of marriage.  Task becomes habit becomes ritual becomes gift when accepted with grace.

Another love song, at least in my interpretation, thanks to Lyle Lovett:

Old friend
All the stories to tell
Old friend
Could you bid me farewell
Old friend
It might be easy for another man to see
Old foe
All the pain and the scars
Old foe
Could you lay down your arms
Old foe
It might be easy for another man to see
Put your head down on my pillow
Put your hand on me and hold on
Hold on
Put your head down on my pillow
Put your hand on me and hold on
Hold on
Old friend

Old friends and old foes: do we not have our most heartfelt battles with the one we love most? Our loved ones are both our nearest friends and dearest foes. But laying down arms and holding on keeps us going, keeps us strong against the 'fightings and fears, within without' of this world.  Unspoken compromise is a rarer gift than a big box of chocolates .Better than a dozen red roses are the errors, omissions, and minor disasters permitted to fade and crumble into dust. My heroes are the old friends who are the last ones standing at the wedding as they count up anniversaries on the dance floor.  I want to dance at all the weddings even when I don't know the songs.  If living well is the best revenge, loving long is surely its corollary.

Happy Valentine's Day to old lovers and those who aspire to be...

I've got that old fashioned love in my heart
There it shall always remain
Like an ivy clinging vine, clinging closer all the time
Through the years, through these tears, just the same

I've got that old fashioned faith in my heart
And nothing can tear us apart
Dry land may change to sea
But there'll be no change in me
I've got that old fashioned love in my heart
(Suzy Bogguss and Asleep at the Wheel)