Thursday, September 7, 2017

Just Looking Around

Destination, anywhere

I thought I knew all about the Roseau City Center. The center, a crazy mish-mash of design ideas which we've gotten used to, was built after the great flood of 2002, so it's been around ten years or more. I'm familiar with the building's museum and library, it's capacious public areas, home to galas, receptions and mega rummage sales. I've passed its smaller meeting area where nervous high schoolers await their driving tests. "Hope I don't get the guy with the mustache, he's the grouchy one." I've been upstairs to the city offices and looked through the remote learning classrooms. But today, as I walked to the mens room tucked behind the library, an elevator door popped open and a rider strolled out.
  I had known since I moved here 40 years ago that Roseau had grain elevators. And I'd heard of the elevator at the bank which is  used by employees only, to take the bank's bullion up to the observation deck for its daily sunning. But finding this new elevator gave me a mild shock. I chastised myself for being so unobservant. Now, as I walk the streets, I scrutinize every nook and cranny, half expecting, half hoping, to find perhaps an escalator running down to a subway platform, with fine tile mosaics...and rats.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Fair

 
New this year! World's largest portable Ferris wheel.

We just returned home from our annual visit to the Minnesota State Fair. We love the fair. It's amazing! Fantastic! But then, I had very low expectations to begin with. My earliest impressions  of fairs were unfavorable. As a child, I identified with the little pig who built his house of brick. The wolf is frustrated by his inability to blow our house down so he invites us to go to the fair with him. "Sure," says the little pig. "What! Are you crazy?" I say after the wolf is gone. "Don't worry," says the pig. "The wolf is coming at two to pick us up. We'll go at noon, check the place out, and be back home before the wolf gets here."  Just as I feared, when we get to the fair the pig screws around, going on rides, eating taffy, etc. To top it off he buys a butter churn which he makes me carry on my back. We're almost home when we spot the wolf coming up the road.  "Quick!" say the pig. He crawls into the churn, pulls me in behind, and claps on the cover. He's laughing so much we start rolling down the hill until we bang into our front door. No wolf. Turns out he thought we were some kind of monster out to get him. I swore off fairs after that.
  Later in my childhood when I was in college, I went up to New Hampshire with some friends to do God knows what. We heard about a backwoods country fair just across the border in Maine. It was quite a hike through the woods from where we left the car so the locals could say we had come out of the woodwork rather than vice-versa. The entertainment of the day was two tractors pulling against each other. We watched for half an hour then gave it up.
  So when Teresa and I got married, she had to force me to go the State Fair in St Paul where we were living at the time. She had exhibited her 4-H cows at the fair in her youth, so the place had happy memories for her. I was shocked that you had to pay an entrance fee just so you could spend more money. They also charged for parking, but if you parked far enough away and walked half a mile, parking was free. Did I mention I'm a notorious cheapskate and tightwad? Teresa must have been reconsidering her choice of mate at this point, but fortunately she's thrifty too. One thing that did impress me was the tiger run. People don't believe me when I tell them about the tiger, but this was back in the early seventies when you could still do crazy stuff with animals. You paid a few dollars to the tiger's keeper and he gave you a heavy hooded coat and a head start before releasing the tiger who always caught up to the customer and brought him or her down in the dust.
  After we moved north, we forgot about the State Fair and Teresa made do with the Roseau County Fair. After the kids were grown and we were rattling around the home place, Teresa suggested we check out the State Fair on a weekend. So we did. I was now a mature adult and could appreciate the pleasures of watching the ever changing parade of my fellow citizens. The full panoply of human types was on display, from youthful models for Greek statuary to the stars of My 600 lb. Life. There were  tee shirts to be read: "Grandpa's my name, spoiling's my game," or "You are the product of a billion years of evolution. Act like it!"
  We've been going to the fair for the past several years, sometimes with family or friends, but mostly just the two of us. It's difficult to move through the crush of people with more than one companion. Every year there are a few new things. There was a small black "Black Lives Matter" tent that seemed to silently say "Shame." I only saw one openly Trump supporter, a young man wearing a big Trump-Pence button and smoking a cigarette in a prohibited area.
  One place we always visit is the Arts Building, filled with two or three hundred paintings and sculptures. Most of the works are straightforward, some are weird, some are wonderful. We try to get there early in the day before the crowd grows massive. There's a gentle slope across the fair and as you descend it, you can see the heads of thousands and thousands of happy people bobbing up and down in the afternoon sun, while fragrant clouds of grease from the Blooming Onion stand waft across the scene.
  If the earth is purgatory, the fair has more of the paradisiacal than the hellish. But I still give butter churns a wide berth.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Theory of Brewing



 A man will not believe how easy it is to break a French press until he breaks one himself - Voltaire

I'm becoming a scientist in my later years. I've been inspired by a book a friend gave me about the North Woods written by a scientist who's spent his life trying to figure out why things happen the way they do. Why does a moose eat one kind of moss instead of another? When the voles go up, do the beaver go down? Who cares, right. I'm ok as I am, but no, I need to move beyond my primitive thought processes, satisfying as they may have been. Nature is very interesting, very intelligent, after all it came up with us. Now it's our turn to figure out how we got to this state.
  All the answers are right in front of us, but it's hard work figuring them out. You make a guess, then do an experiment, and if your guess is wrong, that's valuable data too. Then other people have to repeat your experiment and get the same results. Then you have a theory, which can always be disproved.  Absolute truth remains out there as a goal. Once we reach absolute truth, the game is up.
  My contribution to science should get us a bit closer to the perfect cup of coffee. Coffee drinking has done much to advance science. I will be using the French press in my experiments. There are numerous ways to make good coffee,  but the French press is cheap and simple. You can make rough French press coffee which is perfectly drinkable, but absolute perfection requires measurement. The thing I like best about doing science is watching other people's experiments on YouTube. Apparently the water temperature is important. Some people say wait 30 seconds after the boil. Others say 200 degrees F is the perfect temperature so I stick a little thermometer in the whistle hole of the kettle as it cooks. Another key factor is the amount of beans. I bought a little scale to weigh out the beans. The videos were putting in way too much coffee. I'm a cheapskate so I cut back on the beans. Tasted good to me. Gave me the boost I need to write up my notes, plus I have money left over for a muffin. The last factor is the grind. Medium coarse is needed. Some videos insist on an expensive burr grinder for an even grind, but another site said just pulse the beans in a blade grinder to get an even grind.
  The one thing I didn't like at first about the French press was cleaning the thing. There's always a thick clump of grounds in the bottom. After some experimentation, I learned to run water over the plunger while lifting it out of the carafe. I fill the carafe half way with water, give it a good stir, then pour it around the plants by the front porch. Please check the publication Science in a couple of years for my final results.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Old Nellie

  
What's wrong with this picture?
  There have been new cars in my friend and publisher Steve's family, but he let his wife drive them, then his daughter, while he always made do with junkers and hand-me-downs. His latest vehicle, a 1997 Ford Escort wagon, had 150,000 miles on it when his daughter gave it back several years ago. The car was just under a quarter million miles when he retired from the Polaris Snowmobile factory last month. Steve had nursed this vehicle along, replacing parts and changing oil as needed. It took him to work through summer heat and winter blizzards and also on jaunts to the recycling center down in Thief River Falls. He even went camping in the Badlands with it once.
  The very first time he drove it as a retiree, the engine blew up. Rather, the timing belt broke which allowed the pistons to bend the valves. He could get the engine fixed or install a rebuilt, but the car is not worth it. The local junkyard offered him $100. I counseled Steve to grab the cash and be done with it, but Steve said not so fast. He reasoned that the headlight assemblies he had just installed were worth something. And the alternator and the heater blower motor were both fairly new. Plus the exhaust system only had a few thousand miles on it. The fancy Alpine CD player must have value. Steve proposed to haul the Escort home and part it out, as the pros say. He could advertise for free on the local sell and swap site on Facebook. I warned him that his parts would get lost amidst the baby clothes and suggested craigslist, but he said craigslist is for predators. I fear the Escort will join his stable of ancient wrecks under the oaks along the creek, which is entirely his business.
  I am always happy to help Steve in his endeavors. He said he'd be able to get the Escort home on his own, but would appreciate my moral support. Last Thursday we drove to Jerry Solom's machine shop to borrow a trailer. The trailer was behind a tractor that we did not expect to start (it didn't). We removed the sides from the trailer, then Jerry used his loader and a chain to swing the trailer  away from the tractor. Steve had driven his '94 Toyota 4WD pickup to get the trailer, because the pickup contains every tool, chain or jack you would ever need to get a car onto a trailer.  But the truck was missing its right side mirror which Steve thought he'd need to back up the trailer to his car at the shop in Roseau. We pulled the trailer to Steve's place and transferred it to his '95 GMC conversion van. This van's not much to look at, but inside it's as plush as a Vegas bordello.
  We loaded all the tools we thought we'd need from the truck onto the trailer bed along with a set of ramps and tied them all down. Twenty minutes later Steve was backing up the trailer to his formerly faithful steed. The next time we load a car onto a trailer we'll do a couple of things differently. Number One: load the the front end of the vehicle first, so that most of the weight is over the hitch. The Escort had been parked front end first but we could have pulled it away from the fence to load it. Number Two: be sure the car is lined up straight with the trailer. It's really hard to make adjustments as you winch the car up the ramps, especially in reverse. We learned these valuable common sense lessons during the hour it took to get the car onto the trailer. Steve's puny lawnmower ramps impressed me by not collapsing under the weight of his car.
  Now it was time to chain the car to the trailer. It's embarrassing to have things fall off your trailer.  A jacket or a bucket of oil is one thing. But a red station wagon? Not good. Steve has this unusual chain for tough jobs. It's about 40 feet long, with two different sizes of links. There are hooks at each end and an extra hook welded on in the middle, plus a large steel ring welded on in the other middle. Steve has worked magic with this chain many times in the past, but I always stand aside when he gets down to it. Once the load is chained, you use a chain binder to take up the slack and prevent any movement. Steve had borrowed a binder from Jerry, plus he had bought another at Lee's Store on the way to town. You hook each end of the binder to the chain then throw the lever over and presto! your chain is tight as a tick. That's the theory. Steve struggled with this thing, but like Rubik's cube, it got the better of him. He tossed it to me and I scurried off to YouTube which only had videos of improved versions of our binder. Using more primitive technology, Steve finally got his car attached to the trailer and we drove home at 45 mph, hoping the State Patrol was elsewhere.
  Once home, we recruited Jackie to steer the Escort as Steve, his grandson, and I pushed it off the trailer. So if you need a headlight assembly for a '97 Escort (wagon or sedan) or your muffler is getting noisy, please check out the Roseau Area Sell and Swap on Facebook. Thank you.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Liberation

 
A toast to the Captain Morgan, wherever she may be.


  Our oldest son Matt, his wife Heather and their sons, Sam and Luke are moving back to the South Shore of Boston.  After four years in Lindström near the Twin Cities, they are returning to the town of Hull. One thing Matt liked about Minnesota is that he had a big shop with room to display his Captain Morgan sign.  Back in Massachusetts, he will still have a shop, but it will lack room for the display of large tugboat name plates. Last month, I asked Matt what he was going to do with Captain Morgan and he said he was going to leave it behind, either sell it at the yard sale or just leave it in the shop. Wait, I could not let this happen. Matt was planning a trip to Wannaska and I said I would take it.  I wasn't real enthusiastic about the sign. I love all things nautical, but I still harbor an irrational prejudice against South Carolina for starting the Civil War. I've been to South Carolina. It's beautiful and the people there are most hospitable, but history is a burr I can't get out from under my saddle.
  Ennaways, the sign arrived this weekend and I was asking Matt about its provenance. Matt currently works for Reinaurer Transportation Company, a towboat operation based in New York City. He works for two weeks and has two weeks off. He's been flying to New York from the Cities. After the move, he'll drive from Hull to his tug.
  Before he started  on the tugs, he worked for Bay State Cruise Co. This outfit runs cruise boats from Boston to the Cape and does whale watches. It's mostly a seasonal operation, but the company does take advantage of opportunities in the off season. In 2003, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier was planning to anchor off Key West to give its crew a week of R&R. Bay State sent Matt and a small crew aboard one of its vessels down to Key West where they would  shuttle sailors from the carrier to shore. About half way to Florida, Matt's captain received news that a storm was headed for the Keys and that the aircraft carrier was going to wait out the storm at sea. Matt's boat pulled into Charleston S.C. to await developments. They tied up in a disused Navy yard. During the day they explored the city and enjoyed the restaurants. Their boat had been stocked with several thousand cans of beer for the pleasure of the carrier sailors so Matt and his crew enjoyed some of that before it went bad. One evening they explored a derelict tug tied up near their boat. One thing led to another and soon Matt's Captain Morgan sign was under his bunk for safekeeping. The aircraft carrier never did visit Key West and Matt's boat went back to Boston.
  Matt and Heather had bought a house south of Boston too small to display signs in.  It wasn't till they moved to Minnesota in 2013, that the sign saw the light of day again. After Matt told his story we decided to do a Google search of the Captain Morgan. People badmouth the Internet. Yes it's a time waster and a purse devastator. It steals your identity and the trolls are wicked, but when you need some obscure facts, the good old Internet is right there. Matt and I were stunned as we read those facts. The Captain Morgan was built in 1906 in Newburgh, NY for the New York Central Railroad. She was unromantically named the New York Central No. 2. I imagine she shuttled rail cars around New York Harbor for the next fifty years until she was sold to the Bronx Towing Line and renamed the Colco. Here's where the story gets weird. In 1977, the tug was sold to Reinauer Transportation, Matt's employer! And what's more, she was put into service in Boston Harbor as the Arnold Lyons. A couple of sales and name changes later she received her final name. In 1999, she was "laid up" in Charleston. In 2004, the year after Matt visited her, she was scuttled as an artificial reef. The Internet does not say where. Perhaps that's best. We would like to know who Captain Morgan was. And Arnold Lyons too.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Dr. and Mrs. Spock Go East

  Obituaries in rural areas, especially those of old men, mention how the deceased loved spending time with his grandchildren more than anything. Is this just a pious eulogy point or did grandpa really love nothing better than dandling little Jackie and Clarissa on his knee for hours on end. There's a type of play among young children called parallel play and I think this may be what's going on with grandpa. The old codger sits on the porch watching the kids weed the garden. They get a sip of his beer for every row of beans weeded.
  I'm a bit cynical after spending, Teresa and I, 13 days with two of our grandchildren. For nine of those days we were on our own. Our son Joe and his wife Ashley needed child care for perfectly good reasons which I won't go into here. Two days after arriving in Marshfield, Ashley needed a ride to Logan at 3:00 a.m. As we loaded her car, the screen door locked behind us. Son of a biscuit! Luckily we were able to get Teresa to wake up and let us back in. This little mishap was symbolic of the coming week: a series of near disasters that in retrospect are morbidly funny.
  There's lots of clichés among grandparents: "I love them, but I'm glad I can give them back to their parents," or "It's a good thing we had our kids when we were young." But I know people who are raising their grandkids full time. The only way to make it work is to develop a rigid routine. It took us a few days to figure out a schedule that would work for our two charges. Isla is three and a half. She's beautiful, imaginative, and strong-willed. I tend to let this strong will exhaust itself. Teresa is more like, "We need to get out of the path of the semi that's bearing down on us RIGHT NOW! Both methods are appropriate in their place. Little Nash, 11 months, is an affable, smiley chap. He'll play nicely by himself for five minutes, then he wants to be held for five minutes. Up down up down, interspersed with periods of Isla sitting on him.
  It's always interesting trying to live in someone else's house, especially when they're not around. Ashley is a good cook. She likes natural and organic foods. Her pantry is full of exotic spices and flavorings. I'm a simple lug. Just give me my salt, pepper and maybe some oregano. On Day One I found one of those little picnic salt shakers, but it was almost empty. High up in the pantry was a jar of Himalayan salt chunks, good for your wildlife salt lick. Lower down I found French sea salt in the form of small pebbles. I could pulverize these with a hammer but it was messy and Nash needed to be picked up. On Day Five, while rooting around in the back of the pantry I discovered a one pound container of good old Diamond salt. I felt like a Roman legionnaire on payday.
  Understanding the sleep patterns of the kids was vital to our survival. If you kept Isla up late she would sleep till nine the next morning. Nash was trickier. He required a delicate balance between bottle and pacifier to get him to doze in his crib. We discovered that a sticky mix of rice and yogurt in the evening acted as a soporific. Teresa, bless her soul, volunteered to sleep in Ashley's bed adjacent to the crib. Two to three times during the night Nash awoke and Teresa would warm up one of the little bags of breast milk Ashley had left in the freezer. At some point Isla would crawl into bed with Teresa. At dawn Teresa found she could extend Nash's sleep by taking him into bed too.
  I rewarded Teresa's benevolence by coming up with fun outings every afternoon. On a couple of days we walked to the beach a mile away pushing Nash in his stroller and pulling Isla in her wagon. We had to climb an immense hill which left us shot for the time on the beach. Kids love beaches. I find them overly sunny and sandy. My brother and his wife, a saintly couple, watch their three year old granddaughter three days a week. We visited them several times. This is where I saw parallel play in action. Teresa's birthday occurred during our visit. We all went out to McDonald's to celebrate. It seemed most natural to eat in the car.
  I haven't mentioned the dogs: Raven and Aurora. Both are large animals, Raven black and loud, Aurora white and silent. Dogs make fine companions but are superfluous when you already have two little kids to care for and salt containers to ferret out. The dogs could be fed only when Nash was not crawling around. They needed to be let out to relieve themselves. Raven stuck close to home but Aurora likes to roam so she had to be tied. Raven barked at every passing squirrel so he had to be exiled to his basement dungeon. In an ideal world we'd take the dogs for long walks on the beach. They'd chase the balls we bounced on the hard sand and would refresh themselves in the waves. Spoiler alert: this did not occur.
  On our last full day of babysitting, My sister-in-law came over and watched the kids so we could go out for breakfast and visit Teresa's favorite thrift store. Very early the next morning Ashley arrived home. I didn't hear her come in, but my soul flooded with relief when I saw her shoes by the door in the morning. Not because we were no longer responsible for the kids but because we had kept them safe. No falling out of windows, no choking on wine corks, I don't even like to think of the possibilities. People ask if we'd like to have the kids over for an extended visit. Of course! The corn needs weeding, but don't put that in my obituary.


 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Training for My Half Half Half Half Marathon

  As a kid, driving with my father along Boston's Emerald Necklace, we'd spot a guy dressed in short shorts and a tee jogging along in his own little world. It was always a skinny, long-legged  guy. Even in winter, the only addition would be gloves and a cap. "He's training for the Boston Marathon," my father would explain. My father had run track in high school and respected these guys. Back then only a few hundred runners entered the marathon and Boston's was one of a handful in the world. Now every little burg in the country has it's 5K race in which thousands of duffers puff along.
  My parents later moved to Sunset Point in Hull and my father would sit in the porch and watch the stream of joggers. He'd just chuckle and shake his head. "Crazy." I remember talking to him on the phone one time when he was around 80. He was exhausted. He had just dropped his car off at the shop and walked the mile home . "Maybe that exercise thing wouldn't be such a bad idea," he said. A few years later he was out for a row when the oars slipped out of the oarlocks and he landed on his back in the bottom of the boat. He could not pull himself up. A passing boat towed him to shore and helped to his feet. He was fine, but he knew for sure mortality was creeping up.
  That was when I started going to the gym at work. The experts said three times per week for half an hour on the treadmill was enough.  But after I retired it got harder to get to the gym. I began to backslide until I read an article saying four minutes of intense exercise every day was enough to avoid Kafkaesque scenarios. Even a brisk walk qualified. So a month ago I started getting up at dawn. The bridge on County Road 8 is exactly four minutes away. Once there I could gaze at the river while my heart rate returned to normal. After a couple of weeks I started to jog home. That's when the lactic acid hit the fan. I could barely get to the neighbor's mailbox. But everyday I pushed myself a bit further. I fell into a comfortable lope. My body found its incredible lightness of being. I can make it all the way home now, about a quarter of a mile. Will I push on? It's kind of addicting. If I can get to one mile, why not five or twenty-six? I know about all the diet and exercise gurus who died while jogging, but at least they died happy. Did you know that the only animal that can run long distances without a rest is homo sapiens. I'm one of those. I need a mantra: You can't make your dreams come true on your back. The best guru is you. I could create my own brand of cereal. I just need a catchy name and some wild hickory nuts.
Run Joe, Run