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 stan 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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Cliffs of Less

  Steve's wife Jackie told us about a road through the wild country south of Lake of the Woods. She said the road followed the Rapid River and for part of the route there were cliffs above the road and below it too, down to the river. Northwest Minnesota is mostly flat and boggy. There are incidental hills in these parts but I've never seen a Rocky Mountain style cliff around here. Rationally I knew Jackie's memories were improbable, but my imagination wanted the cliffs to be real.
  We were due for a sketching party. Many years ago Steve, our friend Marion Solom, and I took drawing classes from Marv Espe at Roseau High School on winter nights. In the past few years the three of us plus Jackie have started going on annual sketching parties. We'll pack a lunch and our art supplies and head for a scenic overlook within a 100 mile radius of home.  Jackie's cliffs sounded like the perfect venue.
  Last Wednesday was a great day for sketching: blue sky, 70 degrees, and most importantly, the mosquitoes were not yet out. We drove south to Grygla. I filled the tank (thanks Steve) and we headed east to Fourtown before turning north on the gravel. The Rapid River has it's source around here. The rest of our trip was in an easterly and northerly direction, our goal being the tiny town of Clementson on the Rainy River which forms the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. The gravel road grew narrow and bumpy befitting a trip into the outback. This was state forest land with occasional parcels of the Red Lake Indian Reservation larded in. The country kept switching from marshes of willow and tamarack to dark forests of aspen and black spruce. My phone switched from AT&T to No Service. We picked up the Rapid River. It was no more than waist deep and 20 feet across. Lethargic River would be a better name. The road turned into a grassy one lane track as it twisted and turned with the river. We were well on our way when I regretted not bringing my bow saw. A bow saw would be handy for removing any blowdowns across the road.  I consoled myself with the thought that there had not been any recent windstorms. A good blowdown would force our retreat to Grygla and disappointment. I was also happy it hadn't rained lately. Judging by the deep ruts, the road could get snotty when wet.
  Since I like to worry, I began to consider the age of my vehicle (11 years). In it's near two hundred thousand miles, my Corolla has never let me down. But if one of its crucial systems chanced to fail today, I'd have a long hike back to civilization. Traffic had been extremely light this morning.
  Jackie meanwhile was racking her brains wondering where her cliffs had gotten to. Any of us who has reached the age of seventy has had a number of personas. One of Jackie's was as owner of a supper club in Goodridge MN of all places. "Gooddidge," the locals call it. Her friends used to take her out along the Rapid to hunt. She'd be left alone with a gun and instructions to shoot any deer and pay no mind to the panic attacks. On nice days, these friends and she would continue on to the lodge at Waskish on Upper Red Lake. Jackie had four young kids at the time and she remembered how scared they were at the sight of those cliffs.  "Maybe the cliffs were along some other road to the river," she reasoned.  We stopped along the river for coffee and the muffins Teresa made before she kissed me good by. I hated to turn off the engine, but figured we could jump start the car if the starter failed. And there was plenty of water in the river should the engine overheat. We'd survive one way or the other. Jackie put a souvenir boulder in the trunk.
  The road left the river and straightened out, then found it again and turned curvy. Top speed was 25 for several miles. The sun rose towards it's zenith. Marion in the back seat said she was enjoying her holiday. After thirty-four miles of this we emerged into farm country south of Clementson. We hadn't seen a single vehicle along the river. A few miles later we were at the picnic area by Clementson, one of the prettiest spots in northwest Minnesota. And here at last were cliffs. Not Jackie's cliffs, but the spot where  the Rapid drops twenty feet into the Rainy. In thousands of years the river has cut  through the black rock of the Canadian Shield, tumbling boulders into the pools below. Several white pelicans sat in the pools and on the rocks catching fish.
Yellow part is Terra Canada
  After a quick lunch we settled down to sketch. A strong wind blew up from the gorge. The sun beat down. I drew rocks and pelicans and after awhile just watched. I think everyone else did the same. Steve wandered around taking pictures. I checked off another successful sketching party.
Total mileage on the day: 210 miles.
My sketch



Sunday, May 28, 2017

Raise High The Bumpers, Boys

  My brother's wooden bumper came to our place in the summer of 1978.  Bill had driven his 1966 VW out to Minnesota to visit us. He was living on an island in Maine, renting an old one room schoolhouse and making his living digging clams. He kept his car on the pier in the town of Stonington. The car had electrical problems. Sometimes it wouldn't start. If he could get it rolling he could jump start it. Once running, it would not stop till he turned off the key. He told of having to recruit bystanders to help get the car moving in the morning. He always tried to park on a hill.
  When Bill bought the car it lacked a front bumper. He found a nice piece of oak, cut a small heart out of the center and bolted it in place,
  Bill stayed with us for a couple of weeks and headed back to Maine on a cool. cloudy weekday morning. A couple of hours after he left, I got a call from a UPS driver. He had come across Bill, broken down near the south edge of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. He had blown a cylinder. I strapped our one year old son into his car seat and headed south. Bill was in fairly good spirits when I found him. After all, this could have happened in Ohio. I towed Bill back to Wannaska with a long length of rope. There were no VW mechanics in Roseau so Bill bought an old Ford sedan. We took the engine out of VW and put it his trunk. The plan was for him to get the engine repaired back east then reinstall it in his VW and start for home again.
  Well he never did get the engine repaired and so the VW sat in the backyard to be mowed around for several years. He said I could do whatever I wanted with the car, but asked me to save the oak bumper. The church in Wannaska held fund raising auctions for a few years. People donated stuff they didn't want. I submitted an index card with information about Bill's VW declaring the lack of an engine. I was surprised when someone bid a dollar for the car. Oh, the car also lacked front axles. I had let a friend cut them off for a log splitter. I was gratified when the new owner arrived with a trailer to haul Bill's car away. Off course I had already unbolted the bumper and stored it in the garage.
  We visited the family out east every year but our car was too small to accommodate the bumper. Bill finally visited again two years ago. I showed him the bumper. He had flown out and did not want to pay to check the bumper.  We drove to Boston last year. I asked Bill if I should bring the bumper. "No," he said. "You can keep it. We recently built a fence around our garden. The deer have been getting bad. We found the perfect place for Bill's bumper. He approved.


The sky is lovely, dark and deep