Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Eat Your Oatmeal

     On September 9, 1973, I was standing next to my new wife, Teresa, at her parents farm near Roseau, MN. We had been married the evening before and were opening our gifts under the oak trees in front of the house on this beautiful Sunday morning. We had just opened our fifth toaster, four of which we would later exchange at the local hardware store. Actually we should have kept them all since a toaster only lasts ten years. We would be on our last one now.
     Then we opened a package containing a Betty Crocker's Cookbook. Someone said, "It even has a recipe for oatmeal!" Two of Teresa's aunts snickered to themselves. "Oatmeal! Uff da, who vould need a recipe for oatmeal?" Well I would, for one. But I kept quiet. These aunts were formidable farmwives, used to cooking large joints of beef and unmentionable parts of pigs. They probably had twelve-quart kettles of oatmeal simmering on the back burner right now.
     I felt bad for my cookbook and slid it under a couple of toasters. I could make a sandwich or a salad. Bacon and eggs was intuitive, but anything more complicated would need a guidebook. Over the years I learned a lot from Betty Crocker, but every time I opened the book, I was reminded of that slapdown in '73.
     Just last night I was making biscuits. I only make biscuits every few months so I needed the recipe. I do make oatmeal fairly often. I use a half cup of water and a half cup of oatmeal. Add the oatmeal to boiling water and simmer until the water's absorbed. I like a chewy oatmeal. With brown sugar and cream it's the perfect bedtime snack, but that's just me. I know different people have other preferences. I decided to see what Betty recommended.
      I was shocked to find there was no recipe for just plain oatmeal. Oatmeal cookies, yes, and muffins, etc., etc. All these years I'd been living a lie. Or at least a fib. As I cast my mind back to that Sunday norming so long ago I saw her standing there. There was Betty herself in the back row of onlookers, smiling sardonically. "Read the box, Joe," she said. "Just read the box."

Recipe for mushy oatmeal.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Environmentally Sound

     My mother used to ask me to put the kettle on for her. When it began to whistle, she'd come to the kitchen to make her cuppa tea. My mother had a choice collection of sayings and I'd often hear her call out, "You made an enough for an army!"
    I've carried this practice into adulthood. When I put the kettle on for a cup of tea, it feels too light. Once it boils, it feels too heavy. Does heat have weight? I decided to get scientific. I've started weighing the kettle and water before I put it on the burner. I will train the muscles of my left arm, my kettle arm, so those muscles will know, without interference from the brain, just how much water my oolong will take.
Tea for Two

Common Clay

     This past April I attended a game at Fenway Park, something I hadn't done in a long time. My brother-in-law Pete bought the tickets, my sister Mary-Jo bought the beer, the Sox won by a lop-sided score: it was great.
    But as we left the park, I saw something that disturbed me. A crowd was waiting by an overhead door in the back wall of the park hoping for a glimpse of the players as they whizzed by in their limos.
    When I was a kid, we were likely to see the players on the same trolley as us, headed for home. During the off-season, the players worked as short-order cooks or carpenters. What has happened? We've become a nation of silly adulators. Most disturbing.
Former Sox utility player.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Photo Journey Up The Roseau River

       It's been dry this August and the little river by our place which usually has a few inches in it, has dried up into a series of shallow pools. This is the South Fork of the Roseau River which begins a few miles southeast of us and runs mostly north through Roseau then mostly west (and north) into Manitoba, finally ending up in Hudson Bay.
     I called my travelling companion Steve and asked if he'd like to walk upstream on the dry parts of the river. I suggested he wear his Mucks boots and bring along his waders in case we ran into some deeper areas.
         That's not Steve over my shoulder, but my waders. Steve had bought his waders a couple of years ago and never worn them. This might be his waders' lucky day. I decided to start our trek upstream and away from Hudson Bay. 
     After Steve picked me up we drove over to my neighbor Frank's place. We parked at the end of an overgrown road. This road leads to an abandoned farmstead, "The Old Palm Place," where Steve's great-grandfather lived. The road was thick with ferns and we had to climb over several blowdowns.

         All that remains of the bridge to the farmstead are some pilings and the stones that were rolled down the bank to prevent erosion. We headed upstream crossing the shallow pools that alternated with sandbars. The most amazing sight was the hundreds of little frogs pouring off the sandbars and into the pools as we approached. Had they turned and attacked us in a mass, we would have been in trouble.

     One pool contained dozens of black insects, swimming rapidly round and round. If you didn't know any better, I thought, it wouldn't be so bad to be a bug swimming in a pool on a hot August day.

    Closer to the old farm there was a pile of rocks that had been cleared from the fields and rolled down the bank by the industrious Palms. There were also several pieces of broken machinery.

     There was one long stretch that was completely dry, like a sandy path through the woods. This is a nice place to canoe when there's a few inches of water.

     By now we had had enough.  Man those waders were heavy! We climbed up into a wheat field and made our way back to Steve's vehicle. He had brought along a couple of cans of Cwikla beer, God love 'im, which we consumed on the spot. Cwikla beer is named in honor of Frank. Back in the days when Frank was farming, he would sometimes stop by my place. After a bit of chat he'd ask if I'd like a beer. Sometimes the cans had been rolling around so long in the back of his truck, you couldn't tell what brand it was. Nothing wrong with Brand Anonymous, I always say.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

How to Sing in an Irish Pub

   Four years ago at about two in the afternoon, I chanced to enter Dick Mack's Pub in the town of Dingle on Ireland's beautiful west coast. Dingle is smaller than my home town of Roseau, Minnesota (pop. 2050) but it has lots more pubs (40) and way more tourists (hundreds of thousands).
     Dick Mack's is one of my favorite pubs. It's in all the guide books so it gets lots of tourists, but it's somehow managed to retain it's authenticity. However you won't want to go in there on a weekend night.  It's a mob scene. But an early afternoon is the perfect time to stop in for a pint and a chat with the other tourists who've made their way there from all over the world or maybe even from your old neighborhood back home.
     Now on this particular day at Dick Mack's, a portly old fellow was inviting people to "give us a song." He even looked at me as I walked in, but when I didn't take the bait, he moved on. He got a  young woman to sing an Irish ballad, and I thought, "She's brave to expose herself like that."
     The host looked at me again. This was my big chance. I had always fantasized about singing in an Irish pub, but I chickened out and recited a short Irish poem. The man waved me away in disgust and found another woman, who started singing "Edelweiss." The crowd joined in. Edelweiss! Apparently you could sing anything you wanted in any key. I slunk away, my pint of Guinness unordered, unearned.
     Over the next four years I polished my repertoire, picturing myself back at Dick Mack's, singing my song. receiving a polite smattering of applause, and ordering a well deserved pint. And wouldn't you know, just this past July, I found myself back in Dingle along with 50 or so of my nearest and dearest.
     Early one afternoon, my sister Mary-Jo and I stopped in at Dick Mack's. Some of our group were already there  chatting with a guy from Boston. An elderly couple started playing fiddles behind us. They weren't particularly good and we continued our chat. "Shush!" said the woman. "It's traditional to be quiet when someone's playing." "Yes, if you're bloody Yo-Yo Ma," I wanted to say.
     We took our pints and entered the snug which is a little room at the end of the bar where the women sat back in the days when it was considered improper for a lady to be seen drinking in a pub. We snickered into our stout as the old couple sawed away. This was the first time I'd ever been shushed in a pub. Unbelievable!
     So the week passed away and on my last night in Ireland, I was sitting in McCarthy's, our favorite non-touristy pub. McCarthy's is far enough up the hill above town that few tourist make it there, but it's the first pub down the hill into town from our residential compound. Ennaways, I was sitting there with my brothers Steve and Mark, and it was a bit after eleven when Mark nodded toward the corner. Two women were taking out their instruments, a fiddle and a concertina.
     They were quite good and we stopped talking as they played a series of jigs and reels. The pubs close at twelve. At 11:45, Daniel, the proprietor, closes one of the two half doors as a signal that the end is near. At twelve he closes the other half, but it's ok to linger awhile and finish your drink.
      We chatted with the women when they took a break. They were from Dublin. They had both been musicians earlier in life, but had let it slide. They had recently started taking classes to polish up their playing which is how they met. It's traditional in Ireland for musicians to just set up in a corner and eventually someone will buy them a drink. If they're any good that is. They had never been in McCarthy's before.
     The doors to the pub were closed when one of the women asked if we'd give them a song. Of course we would. When my brother Steve was a kid, he had bought an album of Old West songs. One we liked and had memorized was about Cole Younger and his raid with Jesse James on the Northfield Bank. I started off and Mark joined me. Steve decided to shush. There was one other couple at the bar and they slid closer to observe the outcome.  Mark's a good singer and there was applause at the end. After some more chat, we were asked for an encore. I was ready with "The Buffalo Skinners," another favorite from the Old West. This time Mark shushed too.
     Now it was time to go. The two women may have stayed for another round. I don't know. The other couple from the bar were heading up the hill, when suddenly the woman was running past us back to the pub. Daniel was waiting outside with her phone.
     Meanwhile my brother Steve had made an Irish exit, zipping up the hill without taking leave. We joined the young couple. They were Irish and had just gotten married in New York. They were on a mini-moon here in Dingle. Kevin, the groom, thanked us for our songs and said he wished he had the courage to sing in public. His wife, who had one of those traditional Irish names I have trouble remembering, said that was true, that he had always wanted to sing in a pub. Mark and I asked him to give us a song.
    We followed behind the couple on the narrow sidewalk as Kevin sang a lovely song about people leaving home in Ireland and arriving at Ellis Island. His voice was a bit quavery because he was nervous, but he did a fine job. It was a lengthy song and as we reached our turning, Mark nudged me and we followed along till Kevin finished his song. We applauded, and I only wished I had a pint to hand him, we enjoyed it that much.
     So I managed to sing in a pub after all; one more thing added to my lifetime list of accomplishments. What's next? Perhaps I'll take up the uilliann pipes. Shush!

In front of McCarthy's


Thursday, July 12, 2018

If It Ain't Fixed, Don't Break It.

     My title makes no sense. I'm just playing with the adage: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It. That's one of my 11th commandments. Another is: If It's Just Broke a Little, Learn To Live With It.
     Last year I noticed a wet spot on the basement floor. My basement is a horror zone, a place zombies go for R&R. The utilities are down there, some shelving, some pallets to keep stuff above the high tide line. It would be damp and moldy if I didn't run a dehumidifier all summer.
     Anyway, the wet spot was by the furnace drain line. Did that have a hole in it? I got to the bottom of things, but the drain line looked fine. Then "plop," a drop. I stuck the trouble light into the floor joists. "Plop." A water line was leaking. Where does that go? I get disoriented in the basement. OK, there's the tub drain and hot and cold lines. This must be the line for the toilet. "Plop." I put an ice cream bucket under the leak and came back next day. It was filled a quarter of the way. I can live with that.
     The next time I was in the basement I looked at the problem more closely. A copper pipe came down from the toilet and connected to a plastic line that ran to the main water intake line across the basement. The leak was in the fitting where the copper and plasrtic lines joined. I could get a couple of wrenches and try tightening the connection. "You're kidding, right?" said my 11th commandment obeying self. I went away.  The next time I came down, the leak had stopped. "You see? Doing nothing is best," said my do-nothing self.
      Winter and spring passed. Summer started, and when I was in the basement the other day, the bucket was full to overflowing. I emptied it. The next day it was one third full, an amount I could live with. And then I came upon "Eisenhower's Box." President Eisenhower prioritized all his tasks into one of four "boxes,"
     First came important and urgent jobs. Those you did right now, like working on that speech you're giving in Congress tomorrow. Next came important but not urgent things, like exercising. Those things you scheduled to do. Unimportant but urgent things, like scheduling flights, you delegated to an assistant. Unimportant and non-urgent things like watching TV or checking social media, you deleted. Ike didn't win World War II by being a nice guy.
    At first I put fixing the leak into the second box. It was important, but not urgent. But was it really not urgent? It was getting worse. What if it broke loose while we were away? That would create a mess even the zombies wouldn't like.
    So I moved fixing the leak over to box one and got my wrenches. As I tightened the nut, the dripping increased. Hmmm. I tightened a little more. Now a steady stream shot onto the shelving that held a variety of boxes and bins. "Now you've buggered it, my boy!" I shut off the main water supply, ran upstairs and opened the sink faucets, flushed the toilet, and turned on the garden hose. When I got back to the basement, the leak had quit.
     "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into," a little voice whined. I was now ready to delegate this job to a plumber, but delegating is supposedly for unimportant jobs. Here's where Eisenhower's Box started to break down for me.
     I couldn't quit so easily. I rummaged my brain pan. It may surprise you that long ago I was an auto mechanic for a couple of years. I used to put Teflon tape on threaded connections to prevent leaks. Maybe that would work. I searched my toolbox and found the tape. Its plastic container was yellow with age, but the springy tape was pristine. I wrapped a length around the threads then tightened the nut, and turned on the water. No leak! "God job, soldier," I imagined Ike saying.
     My next job was taking everything off the shelves so it could air dry. "If it's wet, let it dry," is another of my 11th commandments. I've got a million of 'em.

Before doing anything, play with this awhile.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Home Again

      My last blog told of our back-roads trip from our home in northwest Minnesota to Massachusetts, where our three sons and most of my siblings live. We left home in late March and told Google maps to avoid highways. We gave ourselves extra days and loved seeing the countryside up close. I appreciate freeways when we're in a hurry or need to get through megalopolises like Chicago, but we're not in a hurry anymore. We're retired.
     We gave ourselves five days to get back to Wannaska: 1700 miles, 350 miles per day. This time I planned to cross southern Ontario and then head north through Michigan and across the Upper Peninsula to home.
     We left my parents home in Hull on April 25. My parents have left this world, but my siblings have kept the house for summer rentals and the rest of the year for family fun. It was nine-thirty by the time we got the floor swept and the car packed. There was a light, steady rain which would continue all day. I had my phone give us a route out to the Finger Lakes in New York. I cheated a little and took the highway to the outer suburbs, but the roads were so clogged that I might have been better off taking the back streets through the inner suburbs as Google suggested.
   I'm not sure our map guide was the Siri that comes with my phone since we were using the Google maps app, but the voice sounded exactly like Siri, reasonable, persuasive, sometimes maddening.
    We took I-95 up to State Highway 9 then turned west through Wellesly, Natick, and Framingham. It was a gauntlet of strip malls and traffic lights. I really should have popped up to the Mass Pike a few miles to the north and taken the turnpike out to the west side of Framingham where Boston's gravitational pull begins to weaken. It took till lunch time to get into the countryside of long views and small towns. Lunch consisted of leftovers from Hull. Coffee came from the nearest gas station. Gas station coffee is hit and miss. I have to have it to stay alert, and it has to be really bad before I'll drive to another station to avoid poisoning.
    I lived in Massachusetts until my mid 20s, but I had never been on these roads before. Google seems to avoid city centers, opting for the suburbs of larger cities like Worcester or Springfield. One of the joys of the backroads travel is passing through beautifully preserved old towns like West Brookfield, with its mansions, each in the middle of a large lawn. Who pays to keep these up, I wondered. There's always one on the edge of the historical district that has not been kept up to show what neglect looks like.
    Some of the towns have nothing left of interest unless you need finger nail clippers. Then the Dollar General will be interesting. Places such as Ware were mill towns and are trying to convert old brick buildings to shops and condos. How many antique shops can the market bear?
    There were still hints of snow in the mountains between Massachusetts and New York, but that disappeared when we reached the lowlands. The Finger Lakes region contains 11 long, narrow, north-south oriented lakes. I'd seen these lakes several times from the air and was eager to see them at ground level. We were travelling along US 20 and the first of the lakes was Cazenovia, which is not officially a Finger Lake, but pretends it is. The beautiful town of Cazenovia sits at the south end of the lake and has a 19th century feel. It was a good half hour further on to Skaneateles, the first of the big lakes. Skaneateles City also had that old-time America charm. The tourist dollar was keeping these places pristine, as much as that's possible. The dollar stores are relegated to the outskirts of town.
     I had been searching for lodging for the evening and found a nice looking B&B in the town of Waterloo just west of Seneca Falls. People may badmouth the Internet, but it's great for the traveler looking for a place to rest. No more banging on doors as the sun sets with the owner saying there's no room at the inn.
     We checked in around six p.m. and our friendly hostess showed us to the Lincoln Room and recommended a restaurant back in Seneca Falls. We were in luck, it was half price wine night at the restaurant. We enjoyed our meal. just across the street was the Women's Rights Museum. Seneca Falls was the site of the first women's rights convention in 1848. It was also the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the town in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life."
      The great thing about slow travel is that you get to see places like Seneca Falls. The bad thing was that we did not have time to explore the points of interest we passed. Instead of five days, we should have given ourselves ten so we'd have time to do more than buy a postcard.
      We got  a late start the next morning because our hostess's wife was a loquacious sports nut. At a motel continental breakfast you barely acknowledge the other lodgers. Everyone watches the news as their waffles cook. At a B&B of course, everyone's expected to tell his or her life story.
      So we we didn't get on the road till 10:00, but that was ok. We only had to go 325 miles to Port Huron, Michigan that day. We were still eating sandwiches from Hull so didn't have to stop for lunch. We planned to cross into Canada at Buffalo, drive across southern Ontario to Sarnia, then cross back into the U.S. and spend the night in Port Huron. Highway 20 towards Buffalo lacked the interest of yesterday's drive, but at least the sun was out. I had heard how devastated Buffalo had been by deindustrialization and population loss. Since we'd be crossing the Niagara River to get into Canada, we had to go through the middle of Buffalo. First came blue-color suburbs, then two or three miles of neglected looking neighborhoods with no trees and little food/lottery stores on almost every corner. Suddenly, this shell shocked area turned into a lovely neighborhood of beautiful old buildings and parks, and soon after that, we were at the Niagara River.
     We crossed the high bridge and got in line at Canadian Customs. We had stressed a bit about what we had in the car. Teresa had bought some potted flowers when we arrived in Hull four weeks ago and I suggested we leave them behind as transporting soil into Canada was a no-no according to the websites. A couple of the cars ahead of us were sent to the inspection area, but we were waved on through. "Bienvenu," said the agent. French for, "You look harmless."
   We were quickly out in the Ontario countryside, following avenues of trees lining  water filled ditches. There were towering windmills everywhere. A pathetic little sign said "Stop the Windmills," to no effect. After fifty miles or so, the windmills gave out and we entered rolling farmland with stone farmhouses. I could see the tall buildings of London off in the distance. We would not be going there.
    We crossed into Michigan at Port Huron around four p.m. and looked for a motel. No problem on a Thursday evening. April is a good month for travel. The temps are mild and the tourists are waiting for their kids to get out of school. We found a restaurant on the top floor of an old warehouse with a good view of the St. Clair River. The river runs down to Detroit and on to the west end of Lake Erie. Lake Huron was just to the north of us.
     We got a late start next morning due not to a chatty hostess, but to us sleeping in. We only had 300 miles to cover up to Mackinaw City. The countryside that morning, while interesting, is not as interesting as in the eastern states, though Bay City had a string of amazing mansions.  At noon we started looking for lunch. The towns along our route each had several cafes. We wanted to avoid chains but the small cafes can be hit or miss. Again, the Internet is helpful. A cafe may only have a handful of reviews, and the reviews may be unreliable, but they're better than nothing.
    As we were ordering lunch in the town of Mio, we noticed that the waitresses were looking at us, or rather at Teresa. "She looks like Susan," one said loudly enough for us to hear. "Yes," said the other, "and she dresses like her too." I was told I did not look like Susan's husband.
     Back on the road, I started looking for a motel in Mackinaw City.  I like the Trip Advisor reviews. If the reviewers keep mentioning cranky staff, I move on. One guy said the big Best Western was not worth $200 per night even if it did have a great view of the lake. That was last July. Tonight, rooms were going for $81. I booked.
    We pulled into town around four p.m. As I checked in I noticed the giant swimming pool was being filled. The clerk gave us a room in a passageway with a great view of...the passageway. We hauled in our bags and after a minute Teresa said, "I don't like the view." We returned to the front desk. The manager was there now. "Of course you can have a view," she said. "We are just opening for the season today. We had three feet of snow last week." She picked up the phone. "Turn on the heat in room 212," and gave us our key. Our new room had a great view of Lake Huron. Definitely worth $81.
    We had stopped in this town for breakfast with the kids many years ago on one of our drive-through-the night cross country treks. It was summer then and all the shops were open and the place swarmed with tourists. Now, in late April, there were just a handful of souvenir shops and restaurants open.  Most of the snow had melted but there were still high mounds here and there. We walked out to the end of town, "the tip of the mitten," where we could see the great Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula, and off to the east, Mackinac Island. There was a plaque describing how treacherous the passage was between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. A bridge had been dreamt of for a hundred years. One scheme proposed island hopping across Mackinac Island to join the lower and upper peninsulas. Mackinac Island is famous for its lack of cars and horse drawn carriages so it's just as well this plan went nowhere.
     You've probably noticed that Mackinaw City is spelled differently than the island, the bridge, etc. which end in 'c'. There are explanations for the difference on the Internet, none of them satisfactory. The last syllable of all locations is pronounced 'aw'.
   Nona Lisa's Italian Restaurant had fairly good reviews. Almost all the reviews noted the weird décor. The place turned out to be a combination of Mama Leone's and Cabela's Sporting Goods, with lions chasing wildebeests across the rafters. The place must be a madhouse in summer, but tonight we had a quiet pizza in the jungle.
    Next morning we crossed the five mile long bridge high above the sparkling straits and under a cloudless sky. We had the road to ourselves as we headed west along the dunes of Lake Michigan. Eventually we veered north and west into the wooded heartland of the UP, home of "da Yoopers." Around lunch time we spotted a log cabin café in the middle of nowhere and pulled in. There was a wood stove in one corner opposite a short bar with four taps. There were two TVs with the sound off over the bar. We sat at the bar and watched a European soccer match on one TV, a history of cooking show on the other, and Darla cooking our burgers on the grill. A feast all around.
    Later in the afternoon, the road ran along Lake Superior, still a frozen desert under the warm sun. I sent a picture to my brother who captains a tug in New York Harbor and told him there'd be no shipping here for awhile. "Au contraire," he texted back. He has an app that shows worldwide shipping. He said there was a channel into Thunder Bay, Ontario over the horizon. I checked Duluth. The shipping season had started there two weeks ago. Amazing.
    We decided to call it quits in Ashland at 4:00. We could have gotten home by midnight if we pushed on, but that kind of death march is for working stiffs. It was Saturday so motel rates had jumped, but Teresa wrangled a ten dollar discount at the Best Western, built to look like one the grand old lakefront resorts. It was actually built in 1986.
   Asland was once a great iron ore shipping port, but the last shipment went out in 1965. The city is trying to reinvent itself but its old industrial self casts a pall. Most of the downtown storefronts were occupied. There's a brewpub of course and a tattoo alley, but it's still this side of true gentrification,  which may be ok.
   Continental breakfasts can vary greatly from motel to motel. Some are just a dry roll and a flyblown banana. One time there was a person cooking eggs to order, but that was one time only. The Best Western's breakfast was in the middle. We always pick a motel with free parking, free wifi and free breakfast. The breakfast supposedly saves us a few dollars, but they can be soul killing, especially if the TV is on.
   From Ashland it was just another hour to Duluth, Minnesota. We couldn't have taken a freeway  home from Duluth even if we wanted to. It was two hundred and fifty more miles on roads we'd traveled dozens of times.  Once home we called Steve and Jackie to thank them for taking such good care of our place. Nothing was amiss. Taking five days to go 1,700 miles we realized how remote we are from everything and we got a sense of how much of everything there is out there. I'm ready for the ten day drive to Boston.

Lake Superior, Michigan Shore