Plucking at Memory’s Strings

Here I am, nestled between two wonderful holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I pick the word “nestled” on purpose.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I’m determined to enjoy the next few weeks, not go crazy as time get closer.  I have to keep in mind the past holidays, and what makes them memorable, even today.  Simple things, yes, and people, mostly.

When I was a kid, we were “adopted” by my mother’s best friend and her extended family.  One set of my grandparents was dead before I was born, and the other set was behind the Iron Curtain in Germany.  For all intents and purposes, I had no grandparents, nor much in the line of blood relatives in town.  The few that were around were much older than I was.

Thanksgiving and Christmas found our extended “family” spread all over one house, with the dining room table–every single leaf installed–packed with adults.  We kids occupied card tables in the living room, sitting on anything that looked sturdy enough to hold us.  The least desirable was the piano bench, which left both parties with duffs hanging over the outer edges, and elbows that needed a traffic controller for smooth operation.  From there, it was traditional to repair to the oldest girl’s bedroom, where we played “Go Fish,” with her behind a screen in front of her closet, and us lined up with “pole” and “line” to capture prizes she attached to our fishing line.  How ingenious was that?  Get rid of the stuff you don’t want anymore while thrilling all the little kids panting for prizes.  

Christmas was even more fun.  My parents belonged to Eat Club, a group of three couples that met once a month to…eat.  What else!  Close to Christmas, they drew names for gifts, and the production line at each house went into action.  The men were all handy, and could create these crazy Rube Goldberg machines to make something simple into something vastly more complicated.  But my favorite “gift” involved Balm Barr hand cream.  Balm Barr was the favorite of one of the women, so the woman who drew her name bought a large jar of Balm Barr.  She scooped out the cream and replaced it with…you got it, shortening!  Then she slathered a layer of Balm Barr on top, just to throw her off.  Months and months later, the recipient of the “hand cream,” having used up the ENTIRE jar, said, “That hand cream was the best!  But I couldn’t get it to work into my hands, so I put it on at night and just wore gloves to bed.”  She showed off her hands, smooth and pristine.  “Where did you get it?”  The secret came out at last and we all howled.  I still get a kick out of telling that story.

This Christmas will be just as jolly, maybe even more so.  The granddaughter is a newly-minted teenager, and she wants to bake with me.  Not only that, she want to learn how to make my German Oma’s stollen.  My dad and mom spent endless hours working on translating and testing the German recipe before it met my dad’s high standards.  My mom, in turn, taught me how to make it.  Both our son and our daughter learned how to make it from me.  And now, as requested, mind you, I can pass it on to the next generation, along with a few tricks discovered along the way.  As in, don’t try to do a full recipe in one mixing bowl; split the ingredients in half.  My Oma certainly mixed it all up with her hands, not having a mixer.  We don’t have to do that, thank heavens, as the dough is thick and heavy.  Remember, the rum is for the stollen, not for drinking!  Buy candied citrus early, because it sells out quickly, although that’s eased over the last few years.  When my dad was a kid, they got one orange apiece in their stockings.  My relatives lived through two world wars, and that meant very few luxuries, like oranges.  If that recipe goes back even further, and I’m sure it does, that probably meant that citrus, nuts, raisins only showed up at Christmas.  It always does us good to remember the past.  Not just the struggles, but also the small delights we now take for granted.

I know it’s still early, but I already am dreaming of not only stollen, but German pound cake for breakfast, cut-out sugar cookies built into a tree, maybe some of my mom’s fudge, my mom-in-law’s bachelor buttons (which always go flatter than hers, sigh), Hirschhorn kuchen strewn with coarse sugar…   The list could go on and on.  Food is a ready excuse to get together and share hospitality and warmth.  We’re at an age where those are far more important than gifts.  As the old saying goes, the gift of your presence is the only present we need.

May you and yours share the memories of the past–the laughter, the tastes, the smells, the sights of those gone before us–even as you build memories for the future.

Cold for Hot, Hot for Cold

As I started writing this, the morning weather was, as one radio announcer used to say, “quiet and introspective.”  Read “gray and cloudy”.  But I really prefer his take on it.  Anyway, the temperatures were cool, and it felt like rain.  Rain, and perhaps soup.  What? you say.  Yes, soup.  In my life, weather affects not only what I wear, but what I want to eat, and what I want to cook.  So, those quiet cool days make me think of soup.  Maybe a light vegetable soup.  Or frittata, a lightweight egg dish with red, green, and orange peppers diced, shredded cheese of some sort, and even thin slices of fresh tomato.  This goes over well on days like that too.

Which leads me to weather changes.  Now, the weather has cleared, the sun came out, and the temperatures rose. Unfortunately, so did the humidity!  Hot days are one thing, but hot days with humidity are a completely different thing.  Those high-humidity days, where I feel like I’ve migrated to a Florida summer, means I don’t feel like either cooking or eating.  My body still complains that it’s hungry though, so I throw in stuff that’s quick.  A smoothie with yogurt and blueberries goes a long way, and I don’t have to cook it!  Even a glass of raspberry lemonade‒with real raspberries­–will do the trick.  Ice water with cucumber slices?  Sure.  Orange slices are even better.  And you can strip off the orange’s meat with your teeth.  Best not to do this when out with friends.  But at home?  Anything goes!  You know what?  At my age, anything goes anyway!

Just plain hot weather, without the high humidity, finds me foraging in the refrigerator for stuff that will create a salad.  Romaine and fresh spinach provide a nice cool base.  Then throw on everything you find: radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini strips, bacon, tuna, cheese, sunflower seeds, mushrooms…Shall I go on?  No?  Well, yes, we all have our special toppings.  Same with salad dressings.  I love Marie’s Asiago and Peppercorn, but my husband loves…nothing.  No dressing at all.  That tastes good too.  Whatever suits your fancy.  How about tomato slices sprinkled with shredded mozzarella and fresh basil?  A little salt and pepper.  Refreshing!  A whole meal, if you fill up a dinner plate.

Even though November is here, sometimes I’m still sticking with summer.  I’ll usually pivot in October, however, when the leaves are turning.  Although, my favorite apple, Ginger Gold, is available earlier, so…maybe I did cave in, at that point, and acknowledged that fall was appearing on the horizon.  

With really cold weather, I look forward to chili, hot apple cider, slow-cooked beef stew, or goulash and such.  Cold weather food should be hot!  I’ve gotten past the spicy phase of hot, but I’ll never give up those winter foods.  Lasagna and garlic bread taste so much better when it’s cold outside.  How about fresh bread?  Granted, that’s great anytime, but when the house is closed up, the fragrance of baking bread is so enticing.  Heavy peasant, or whole wheat, or pepperoni bread, they’re all welcome in my kitchen.  They go so well with pork roasts cooked in the crock pot with onion slices and carrots and potatoes.  Oh, yum!  Plus, there are always leftovers to make pulled pork sandwiches.

Even simple foods taste better in the cold weather.  One of the favorites?  Tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches.  Toss a couple of cubes of sharp cheddar into the soup and voila! pot o’ gold!  Top the sandwich with a handful of shredded cheddar and run it under the broiler just long enough to melt that golden layer.  Mmm-mmm!

Soon, the meteorologists will be warning that there’s a huge snowstorm coming, with high winds and dropping temperatures.  What to fix for dinner then?  Oodles of choices.  So, bundle up, light the fireplace or a few candles, and warm your insides and outsides.  Food warms the tummy, but it warms the heart and the soul as well.  Bon appetit!

What Goes Around

I was sewing with my mother years ago, when she stopped me cold with a sharp question.  I had just cut out…something…and opened the scissors slightly to run my fingers along the blade (safely!) to wipe off the lint left from the fabric.  I nearly cut myself when she commanded, “Where did you learn how to do that?”  It took me a moment to figure out she was referring to me wiping the blades.  “Um…I don’t know.  You, maybe?”  She shook her head.  “No, but my mother used to do that all the time.”  Unwitting continuity.  I never knew my grandmother, but somewhere, buried in my genes, was that simple gesture.  Continuity with the past.  I wonder how many other ancestors made that little move without thinking?  It got me thinking, that’s for sure!

Watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II recently, I was struck how the pageantry and rituals are the same as those of decades, or even centuries, ago.  Sure, some new things get added in, as individuals choose to introduce new steps, new styles, new technology into the old patterns.  The red coats trimmed in gold, the bearskin hats, the gun carriage.  Well, all right, that last one was brought in by Queen Victoria.  But some people think she also brought in the use of black clothing for funerals.  Not so!  That was the Romans.  And it still persists today for many.  Personally, I want red and purple and lime green at my funeral.  Party colors.  Break the tradition, as it were.

Many things showing continuity are so obvious, and so often commented on, that we hardly pay much attention.  Red hair that runs through the generations.  The artistic abilities that show up like a thread of silver through children, grandchildren, even cousins.  Eye color, freckles, an extra long big toe, hairy ears…the list could go on and on.

But some things are like little tricksters that pop up and make us take notice.  For a long while, I looked like my dad.  Same hazel eyes that belonged to him and his siblings and parents, same brunette hair, same complexion.  However, a cousin meeting me after a goodly span of years remarked, “Wow!  You look just like your mother!”  I had to check out the nearest mirror!  Sure enough, there was my mother’s white hair, the shape of my mother’s face, the spray of faint freckles.  The same hazel eyes were still there, but much less prominent than my dad’s were.  Good Lord, I’ve turned into my mother!  (And that’s not a bad thing, really.)

The weather, of course, provides us with continuity, though it may not exactly be comforting for some to see the warmth turn brisk and the sun skim lower on the horizon.  For me, one of the pleasant surprises is the appearance of Mount Michigan to the east of Milwaukee.  Now, we don’t really have mountains in southeastern Wisconsin, nor does the part of Michigan directly across the Great Lake have mountains.  However, on those early mornings, when the nights have been cold, but the sun is coming up, look east, and suddenly, white mountains!  Lake Michigan is offering up great billowing clouds of water evaporating into the morning air.  I swear it looks like Colorado’s snow-covered peaks.  It happens every fall, but I wonder how many people cruising east along the freeways on the way to work even notice our “mountain range.”  Like Brigadoon, it appears only on certain days, and is likely to be gone like a will-o-wisp.

Like the woman who sliced off the top of the Easter ham before baking it, sometimes we don’t even catch the craziness.  She did it because her grandmother did the same.  One Easter, a great-granddaughter asks, “Why do you do that?” and gets the usual answer: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Then granny speaks up and announces, “I cut off the top because otherwise it wouldn’t fit in my pan in the oven.”  Yikes!  How funny!

Continuity can provide us with a handle to the past, a stable link with something, or someone, that came before.  But sometimes the meaning behind things can be lost.  Why ring bells from the church steeples?  People have clocks and watches now, and don’t need that kind of a reminder.  Why send snail mail cards when many people have email and phones?  Because they give us a sense of connection with the larger world outside of ourselves.  So, keep an eye out for those annual meteor showers, mark the birthdays on the calendar, listen for the bells.

In short, celebrate the continuing threads that tie us all together!

Visiting Local

Why is it that we don’t visit the sites that are almost in our own backyard?  I wonder how many Parisians have not made the time to tour Versailles?  Have lots of Berliners walked through the Brandenburg Gate?  How many New Yorkers have never been out to the Statue of Liberty?  Have people in Los Angeles gone up the hill to enjoy the view from the Griffith Observatory?  Do San Antonians know how to find their way to the Alamo?

I’m just as guilty as the next person, to be honest.  But when we visit others, we discover it’s not an unusual phenomenon to wait until someone comes from a distance to show them around–and get the benefit of seeing something for the first time themselves.  That’s how we got to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, where we walked across the river, barefoot.  Flowing out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, it was a mere stream, probably 8 to 10 feet across, and only shin-deep.  Without a visit to friends close to the lake, we probably would not have traveled the nine hours to get there.  A rare treat.

So, when a friend came recently for a week’s visit, we took special care to show her some of the attractions close by.  Yes, we could have done Chicago, or even Milwaukee, but she’s seen those places pretty thoroughly already.  When I really put my mind to it, I discovered plenty of interesting places within an hour or so of home.  I roped a local friend into exploring a few with me beforehand.  She frequently says to me, “So, when’s the next Adventure?”  Always a willing companion, when my spouse is busy or prefers other activities.

We did Olbrich Gardens (https://www.olbrich.org) in Madison, a gem of 7 acres maintained by a horde of volunteers and gardeners.  Very walkable, plus, a tram to give a comfortable overview.  Milton House, in Milton, was a confirmed stop on the Underground Railroad, and we got to walk through the tunnel (excavated taller so we didn’t have to crawl), and tour the hotel above it.  The art show and the 4-H deep fried cheese curds outside were an added bonus!  We traipsed around Old World Wisconsin in Eagle (https://oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org), a collection of ethnic farmsteads and tiny villages collected and moved to a lovely locale.  It even boasted a female blacksmith while we were there.  Another tram made getting around easy.

I found out that California, which considers itself heavy on the dairy industry, can’t hold a candle to us, because we have cheese curds–both fresh & squeaky, and deep-fried–and they don’t.  But the real jewel in our crown, according to our guest, is Culver’s.  She perused the month’s offerings and found, for the week she was here, three–yes, count ‘em–three frozen custards to try!  In addition to those, we went for lunch, to make sure she could try the Butterburgers.  Pronounced delish!  Also, we have yellow beans, which she’d not had.  Well, okay, she is from Los Angeles…which I really don’t consider California at all.  It’s an entity unto itself.

Though we didn’t get to cruise on Geneva Lake while she was here, four of us went down recently and rode the mail boat (https://www.cruiselakegeneva.com).  A “jumper” leaps to the dock as the mailboat slows, not stops, runs to the mailbox and stuffs the plastic-wrapped mail in, dashes back in time to catch the aft of the boat in a grand vault.  Only, she didn’t.  Catch the boat, that is.  She slipped on the dock, and sailed gracefully into the drink!  We circled back and picked her up, her feeling a bit chagrined.  We gave her an ovation anyway.  The best delivery, however, found a golden retriever waiting at the end of the dock.  The jumper gave the rolled mail to him and he trotted back up to the lawn, tail wagging madly, where his owner waited.  The last stop found us meeting…Santa!  Shhh!  He doesn’t want people knowing he reverts to shorts and spends the summer in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  We promised not to tell anyone…so, please don’t pass this on.  😊

The more I look for places to explore, the more I find.  If we don’t get visitors for a while, I guess I’ll just have to grab my local friend and ask, “Are you ready for another Adventure?”

You go ahead too.  No matter where you live, get to those places you’ve told yourself you’d visit…someday.  You don’t have to wait until someone visits from out of town!

I’m Goin’ Down

I think I’m bound for hell.  No, really.  For example, I get perverse pleasure when I meet at a red light the person who zoomed past me just a mile back.  What did it get them?  A longer wait at the stoplight.  That’s when I feel perverse pleasure in seeing that their impatience didn’t pay off, while I, who was sticking to…well, all right, sticking closer to…the speed limit, reached the same intersection just in time to see the light go green.  I hardly had to take my foot off the accelerator.

That kind of perverse pleasure–what the Germans call schadenfreude, guilty pleasure–is probably going to land me in hell.  Well, okay schadenfreude isn’t quite the same, is it?  Guilty pleasure is getting pleasure out of seeing someone else’s pain.  And then feeling guilty for being so happy at someone else’s predicament, and yet feeling happy about being right.  Now, come on, admit it–you’ve been in the same situation, haven’t you?  Probably in that car on the other side of the crazy driver who passed both of us up a while back.

Admittedly, it’s not like I take pleasure in another’s real trauma.  I know there are crazies out there that do, but that far I don’t go.  So…maybe I won’t end up in hell.  Maybe just Purgatory.  Is there still a purgatory?  If there is, I hope God doesn’t feel guilty pleasure at having me sitting there thinking about what I’ve done, much like children banished to their rooms.  “You go right in there and think about what you said/did/thought about doing/will do….”  An exercise in futility, perhaps.  One of the perverse pleasures is…the guilty pleasure you get out of it.

Some things are rife with schadenfreude.  Election results often engender it, don’t they.  Even simple things, like seeing a grandchild’s chief rival come in second at a track meet, especially if said grandchild comes in first.  Every time we warn someone of an impending foolish or questionable choice, and it doesn’t work out, don’t you say, even if only to yourself, “See?  Told ya it wouldn’t work.”  Bite your tongue!  No, not now; before they try whatever they’re attempting.  Besides, sometimes things actually do work out the way they planned, not the way you perceived.

I think my one saving grace may be that I do try to remember that somewhere out there, someone is watching me zoom past them on the road, or try something that’s been practically proven to be foolish or impossible.  Luckily, I do avoid the stuff that’s dangerous.  Anyway.  Maybe because someone else is experiencing schadenfreude over my actions, I can avoid being sent to hell.  Or maybe, at least I won’t be the only one down there.  Misery loves company.  I’ll bet perverse pleasures do too.

Maybe I can reform.  So, if you see me wave you on into a parking place where we were both headed, don’t feel perverse pleasure at having beaten me out.  Just smile and remember that I’m trying to avoid the “perverse” part of the pleasure.

Door County Delights

You leave town for a few days, and the winter squash sends out reconnaissance squads to see what is the best route of escape, the garden path, or the sneaky run alongside the tomato plant.  Then, the day you get home from Door County, the power goes out for a couple hours.  Welcome home!  But that’s not what this is all about.

What this is really about is chillin’ on vacation.  For those of you who don’t know, Wisconsin is like a mitten, and the thumb is Door County.  The waters of Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other, with cherry orchards and hiking paths, and artists, and… Well, it’s just plain ol’ down-home small town delightful.

Begin the morning with a leisurely stroll to the little coffee shop down by the marina in Fish Creek.  Yes, the towns even have delightful names:  Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, Gill’s Rock, Bailey’s Harbor.  We spent an early hour or two watching people walk their dogs (many, many dogs!), or come down the gangplanks of yachts bigger than our house, or maneuver a mega-truck in tight quarters to off-load boats so they could enjoy getting sunburned out on the water.  It was a good place to discover that, yes, there were going to be fireworks, generously paid for by a group of summer residents.  Or no, the merchant sitting at the next table wouldn’t be spending the winter up here this year.  Responding to a conversation at the next outdoor table wasn’t considered tacky either.

Some enterprising soul ran what appeared to be a water taxi service with his jet ski.  Pulling a dinghy behind, he brought people in to the dock from their sailboats moored out in the bay, then headed back out for another load.  Coming in a close second was observing a golden retriever, tricked out in a life jacket, getting ready to go aboard a little Zodiac boat.  He padded back and forth, aware of his owner packing in a bag cooler, oars, sundry other items.  Finally, nose down, he seemed to be ready.  “Seemed” being the key word there.  Said owner ended up gently pulling the dog into the boat.  Said dog wasn’t too sure about the whole operation.  Though, when they actually set off, the dog seemed perfectly happy to stick his nose out starboard while his tail wafted off portside.

Wisconsin is well known–and deservedly so–for frozen custard.  One of the delights of the Midwest, the stuff is creamy and delish!  We frequented Not Licked Yet, one of our favorite spots for performing quality control on waffle cones piled high with Butter Pecan, or Mint Chocolate Chip, or just plain Vanilla or Chocolate.  Note the capital letters.  This is not your grandma’s ice cream.  This is premier stuff.  Right across the street is Wild Tomato with their wood-fired pizza oven.  Dessert first, then dinner?  Or the other way around?  One of the many tough decisions up in Door County.

This was the weekend of the Fourth of July, so fireworks were de rigeur.  But so was the time-honored Egg Harbor parade.  Anybody could join, so we expected a rather ragged parade.  But this was top-notch small town stuff, with more than a sprinkle of creativity and candy.  Dancing chimneys singing out, “Got a dirty chimney?  Who ya gonna call?  Tim’s Chimneys!” to the tune of the Ghostbusters’ theme.  Grocery cart fancy maneuvers from the local Market employees, during which they gleefully plotched each other with water balloons and flung buckets of water everywhere.  A float with a couple reclining on a bed with the banner: “Make your own fireworks at Egg Harbor Lodge.”  I’ll leave that one alone…  The University of Wisconsin marching band–well, a small contingent of them, anyway–playing the fight song with a lot of arm-pumping to go along.  Many many other units, some groups, some singletons.  Last came a group of horseback riders with lassos.  Gaggles of kids, and grownups too, formed tight little pods out on the street, and the rider wound up and dropped a perfect loop right over the entire bunch.  Pretty impressive!  (Good thing they were last.  The following truck carried a shovel and…well, you get the idea.)  Rain was predicted, and, sure enough, after a “droplet warning” at the end of the festivities, giving plenty of time to get to the car and halfway back to Fish Creek, the skies opened and gifted us with much needed rain.  For us, it was Mother Nature’s car wash as well.

Everywhere we went, empty parking places were right there and waiting for us, even when we made a wrong turn (fortuitous that!).  The people were Midwest friendly, the hiking trails were bug-free, the weather picture-perfect.  Even the smoked fish shop was still there.  What more could we ask?

All good things must come to an end, I suppose.  As Shakespeare put it in I Henry IV, “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.”  Clearly, Door County went into mourning the morning we left.  We awoke to fog on the water and an overcast sky, which didn’t lift until we were well down the line.

We’ll be back.

(Check out the Photos section for lots more visual fun!)

When Should I…?

It’s June already!  For some time now, I’ve had to begin making decisions about what gets done when.  Like when to put the garden in.  Some of those are easy to decide, considering many are based on what Mother Nature has in mind.  Some aren’t quite so easy.  Especially with the fickle weather lately.

When should I run the gas out of the snowblower?  May 1st always felt like it should be the correct date.  But I’ve learned that early May is too early.  Sometimes even later is too early.  In the back of my mind lurks the memory of that certain May 10th.  I don’t even remember the year, but I do remember that I was still teaching, and still swimming at the YWCA before heading off to school.  When I left that morning, at about 5:30, it was snowing/sleeting and, unbeknownst to me, the temperature was headed for the basement.  The trees were covered with snow already, and that was quickly turning to a thick ice coating.  By the time I came out of the Y, it sounded like the local gun club took up residence.  Cracks and rumbles, snaps and crashes gave voice to the many tree branches–and whole trees!–were tumbling to the ground, taking power lines with them.  Upon finding out school was cancelled, I worked my way back home, which involved many detours to avoid fallen trees and lines.  That memory being seared into my brain, I now know to wait until June 1st to run the gas out of the snowblower.  I just hope the climate doesn’t change so drastically that I’ll have to move that task to July!

When should I hang sheets outside to dry?  Here, Nature and I have a tacit agreement.  If the sun is out, there’s a bit of wind, and the temperatures are around 50, even sometimes in the 40s, I can bundle up, put out the umbrella clothesline, and hang out the sheets.  Sometimes, I get fooled and clouds gather, threatening rain.  Then it’s a race between me and the incoming storm as to which will reach out backyard first.  If it’s too early, I end up resorting to the dryer.  At least we have a dryer to resort to!  Occasionally, I’ve taken down what feel like dry sheets, only to discover that the coolness is due to damp, not air temperature.  Too late, they’re down.  I’m not putting them back out.  Shove ‘em in the dryer.  But when it works out, when sun and wind and temperature align, we get the best tumble dry in the world.  There’s nothing like the fragrance of a sun-warmed sheet to float onto the bed.  I almost hate to put blankets down, the sheets smell so good.  It doesn’t last, of course, but that first gust of sunshine brought inside is something to be cherished.

When should I buy a new car?  Right now, I’m driving Ruby, a 2006 Rav4 with over 134,000 miles on her.  Just yesterday, I found the first spot of rust!  It’s the size of a pea, right above the rear bumper.  Is that a sign?  Not yet, I say.  She and I have a symbiotic relationship.  She protects and transports me, and I keep her maintained and cleaned.  Well, sort of clean.  I learned early on not to let others load my bike.  The one man who did, put a scratch in the plastic interior. Sure, it’s way in the back, but still.  Ruby cooperates nicely when I put down the back seats, protect her deck with an old bedspread (making sure to cover the back bumper), and gently roll the bike in.  See?  No damage.  She’s transported not only one bike, but two, when a friend and I purchased identical e-bikes (different colors, however).  We were able to stack them without making so much as a nick.  I’ve piled in tents and camping gear, coolers and duffel bags.  Lining the back with a huge tarp, I’ve shoveled in black dirt and mulch without so much as a complaint.  Once, on a family trip to Door County, we even brought an Eastlake table back by turning it upside down and piling our gear on that.  Gardening supplies, tools, long pieces of pipe or wood, all of that fits in.  When the seats are up, we delight in carting grandkids around.  Even with one in high school, we can fit three kids in the backseat with no major brouhahas erupting.  So why should I get a new car when Ruby is tooling along just fine?  Well.  A rearview camera would be nice.  Warnings of close cars would be useful.  A GPS system…  I could go on.  But I don’t want to frighten her into quitting unexpectedly on the freeway one day in retaliation of such thoughts.  Guess I’ll wait a little longer, and keep an eye on that rust spot.

How about, when should I stop writing?  Stop reading mysteries?  Quit playing piano?  Get rid of the husband?  Ha! Never!  Never ever.

How Did We Ever…?

When I was a kid, how did I ever climb all those trees?  Our house backed up on a park with plenty of trees, but many were elegant pines that were simply too tall–or too sticky!–to climb.  But I had two favorite maples that were eminently more accessible.  The smaller of the two was easy, as it was fairly young, and the branches, just hefty enough to hold my weight, were reachable.  Standing on tiptoes and slinging my arms up and over, I could pull myself up, and then proceed higher from there.  The other one, as I recall, was bigger, and took some real effort to clamber up the trunk to reach any branch sturdy enough to go higher.  I usually stuck to the smaller tree, going up as high as I could so I could perch and watch the world go by.  No ropes, no pads, no helmet, nothing but the brute strength of a pre-teen.  (Is there such a thing as brute strength at that age?)  Now, if our granddaughter is visiting, I’ve learned that the first place to look for her if we’re outside is up our massive maple tree in the backyard.  Must be genetic!  She’s gone on to greater things already, as she’s now a competitive rock climber, while still a pre-teen.

How did I ever learn to ice skate or roller skate, or ride a bike, for that matter?  How many times did I crash and burn while out there with no kneepads or helmet, or any other accouterments to cushion any falls?  Plenty, that’s how many!  When ice skating, at least winter provided the best reason to pad up with snowpants, heavy jacket, mittens, hats.  No problem falling then, we were so layered we all looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy.  A worse fate awaited those who had to visit the bathroom after getting dressed.  Summer roller skating was fraught with more peril, as concrete doesn’t give much when in sudden contact with hands or knees.   But I’ve now been bested by a grandson who’s taken to the ice to speed skate competitively…at age 9.  Better than I could ever do, even then!

How did I manage playground equipment?  Remember those merry-go-rounds that could prove the physics of centrifugal force, always laying in wait to fling you off onto the asphalt?  Or the slides that ended so abruptly…kerthump!  I loved the teetertotters.  Haven’t seen one of those in years.  They provided a great opportunity to plague a friend by keeping them suspended up in the air while you hoped your weight would keep them there.  Of course, sometimes that backfired, as they returned the favor, and then pushed off so you descended so rapidly you left a crater when you hit bottom.  What fun!  No, really!  It was fun.  Tetherballs could turn into weapons too, if the server had a really powerful stroke.  Paying attention was crucial, so you could serve back to them.  In a more gentle fashion, naturally…

 My crowning glory, however, in the How-Did-I-Do-That? category was the fall I learned how to kangaroo.  This has nothing to do with Australia, and everything to do with canoes.  Our Girl Scout troop was on a canoe/camping trip on the Wisconsin River in September when our leader–our adult leader, nonetheless!–challenged us to a kangaroo duel.  Several of us took up the offer.  Little did we know…  Swimsuits and bare feet were de rigeur, considering we might take a dunking.  First step: empty the canoe of all but self and a paddle, and paddle out to the middle of the river.  Second step: stand up on the gunwales, as far aft as possible.  (I can hear you either gasping or laughing.  Trust me, gasping is more appropriate!)  Third step: bounce up and down gently, without feet leaving the gunwales, thus propelling the canoe forward in little hops, kangaroo-like; hence, the term.  Yowza!  How safe is that?  And we didn’t wear lifejackets either.  Safe?  No.  Stupid!  I don’t recall falling in the river myself, but I’m sure somebody did.  The photo from 1961 proves the deed.  So far, no one else has taken up this sport, and I use the term lightly.

Yes, that’s me on the left. (Please, no judgements!)

Seatbelts were a thing of the future, but, then again, no one could move faster than a mom’s arm in restraining a kid in the passenger seat, if quick braking was called for.  Bike helmets were only for roller derby queens.  Knee pads were worn by professional gardeners, not those of us just grubbing around in the dirt, or roller skating.  Playground surfaces were asphalt, or, in special cases, wood chips.  Ouch!  The splinters!

Sometimes I wonder how any of us survived childhood!  But we did, and I’m glad.

Spring! What?

It’s April, right?  Right?  As I’m writing this, I’m staring out at the remnants of an April snowfall.  Now, I live in Wisconsin, so I shouldn’t be surprised.  I remember plenty of snow in April when I was a kid, enough to still enjoy skiing.  But ol’ Mom Nature seems to have retreated from those kinds of snowfalls in recent years, so this one came as an unexpected…gift.

Well, yes, to give the meteorologists credit, snow/sleet/rain mixture was predicted, but I was concentrating on the “rain” part.  After all, the tulip leaves are up and unfolding, and the daffodils are poking fingers out of the soil…um…out of the snow now.  The snowdrops have been blossoming for a bit already, but they’re not called snow-drops for nothing.  I know, I know, spring officially arrived March 21st, or whatever was decided.  But that is far too human.  Kind of like the Changing of the Clocks in spring and fall.  Time itself doesn’t change; there are still 24 hours in a day.  Moving on…

I prefer to rely on Mother Nature, even if she does snicker and dump snow at odd times.  I watch for the birds in particular.  Even the flowers can get fooled, but they’re usually smart enough to hunker down if the weather does a whiplash on them.  I picture them like a petulant child, folding arms and pouting, but staying in place to just wait out the gusts.  The birds are usually more reliable.  Except for the robins.  A couple of those idiots will hang around all winter, thus negating my “scientific” determination of spring.

Several bird avenues exist to help figure out what’s coming.  Maybe the best around here are the sandhill cranes.  Yes, sometimes one pair will hang around the marshes all winter, but they’re pretty quiet.  Once love is in the air, they start calling and laughing.  I always hear them before I see them.  A pair or two will go over as harbingers of what’s to come.  Then come the hordes.  Flocks of 20, 40, I even counted 150 one morning.  Magnificent!  I know they congregate along the Platte River in Nebraska by the hundreds, but we get smaller groups coming up from Florida.  Check out the images on Google.  Wowza!  Talk about birds!

If sandhills start the season, then keep your ears open outdoors for an old-fashioned telephone ringing.  That’s a red-wing blackbird.  If they’re here–and they are around here already–then spring is truly here, no matter what the weather says.  They don’t soar like the cranes, but are easily spotted hanging precariously on dried grasses and cattails.  Just don’t get close to the nests once they start building.  They divebomb anyone coming within ten or twelve feet.  One knocked my hat off last spring when we were out in a public park for a walk.  Oh, yes, folks, they nest close to people sometimes.  And they attack from the rear, so it’s best to hang onto the hat and hustle smartly past a blackbird.

I love watching the small birds that cluster on the birdfeeders outside our patio door.  Some birds just don’t care about weather.  They’re around all winter.  Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, mourning doves, woodpeckers.  But a few are true migrators.  The funny thing is, they fly off looking for colder climes, not warmer.  The juncos, for instance, also known as snowbirds.  When their numbers start declining, spring isn’t far behind.  I think they leave a couple behind just to tease us into thinking spring will never come.  But eventually, those leave too.

The fun part is watching the finches.  First of all, whoever named purple finches must have been colorblind.  They are most definitely not purple, but rosy.  Well, everyone does see color in a different fashion, so I guess I should be more tolerant.  Anyway, they don’t change quite as dramatically as the goldfinches, whose male half explodes into a blaze of lemon yellow.  What female goldfinch could resist such a display of Louis XIV splendor?  The Sun King reincarnated in this tiny bird.  Now spring is truly, really here.

No matter where you live, keep your eyes peeled for the birds that proclaim Spring.  They may be all puffed up and hiding from the snow in a thick evergreen, but they know what they’re doing.  They’ve been promised spring by the correct sun angle, and, b’god, they’re going to create spring with their presence.  Hope springs eternal, and hope always does come through with the birds.  So, get out your binoculars and watch for the signs.  They’re out there.

Pi(e) Day, and More

Pi Day:  March 14.  Get it?  3.14?  That mathematical…whatever it is.  Well, okay.  It’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  Oh, yeah!  You remember now!  Teachers all over pounce on the date to introduce some fun.  Bake pies and bring them to class.  Measure all the stuff on a 10-inch pie pan, then do it over for a 9-inch pie pan.  Does it change if you use a deep-dish pie pan?  (Hint: no) Of course, this all entails sampling the pie, because you have to deal with diameter, and—horrors!—maybe even radii (that’s plural, folks).  Whatever is required, it all ends up as a mathematical triumph, as well as a gastronomical one.

Which reminds me of my personal pie triumph, which involved my Senior Girl Scout friends camping pioneer-style.  When two of us were on cooking detail, we decided to make the fresh blueberries we picked into a pie.  We had a reflector oven for use with a wood fire that had already produced successful biscuits.  But we didn’t have a pie pan.  So…we used a garbage can cover.  Yes, we washed it, and lined it with aluminum foil.  We fed a dozen of us.  Messy?  Oh, yeah.  But it tasted great, garbage can cover or not.  Of course, that was the meal we also served banana pudding, with pieces of banana floating throughout.  Only, we didn’t have bananas.  We had lumps.  How we managed to convince everyone the lumps were bananas, I have no clue.  Please don’t tell them our secret.

Then I got to thinking about pi.  It’s non-repeating, so the numbers go on forever.  I wondered if there were any zeros in pi.  Yup, out in 32nd place, there’s the first zero.  Which took me even farther afield.  Where did zero come from anyway?  That took some searching.

Turns out it started in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago.  Then moved to India, back to the Middle East, and onward all over.  Anyone familiar with the Super Bowl knows the football game uses Roman numerals.  We’re already past fifty.  That was “L.”  We write it also as “50.”  See?  Take a look. There is no Roman numeral for 0.  Weird, eh?  That’s because the Romans devised a number system for trading and pricing goods.  They used the Latin “nulla” meaning “nothing.”  Which isn’t the same as zero…

Right, you say.  Who cares?  In Rome, you couldn’t buy or sell “nothing,” so they didn’t need a zero.  But if you’re trying to show that something is missing between two numbers…well, that’s where a zero is useful.  One Middle Eastern culture put a dot underneath a number, to show that there should be a gap between that and the next number, as in the number 107.  

So now we use Arabic numbers.  Thank Signor Fibonacci from the 1200s.  Much simpler than the old Roman numerals, where you could tie yourself in knots just trying to figure out if XIX is 11+10, or 10+9.  (It’s 10+9, in case you’re wondering.)  Zero was a great place holder.  A positional, as it were.  Imagine trying to add or subtract Roman numerals!  Yikes!

Mathematics went crazy from there.  Calculus, graphs, computers, and on and on.  And I’ll leave it at that, not having a mind that works well with abstracts like…well, zero.

All this from contemplating pi.  Simple, right?  When it comes to pi, or pie for that matter, I’ll stick to Yogi Berra’s solution:  “Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I can eat eight.”