Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sweet Serendipity

Now there’s a word.
“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”
I like the idea. I like when it actually happens even better.
We, like many of you, spent part of Memorial Day weekend remembering. In our case, it meant a trip to Fort Madison, Iowa, the river town where my late mother-in-law grew up. There’s a cemetery on a hill north of town where she, my father-in-law, and her parents are laid to rest. It’s a place we visit at least a couple of times a year--sometimes more--to leave flowers and wreaths and to remember the happy days my wife and her siblings spent visiting their grandmother.
After we paid our respects that day, it was time to plan the route home. I wondered about a short detour through Nauvoo, when she piped up with another idea.
“How about we head for Bonaparte and Keosauqua?” she said.
A quick look at an Iowa map showed those two towns to be located northwest of Fort Madison, right on the banks of the Des Moines River.
During the mid-19th century, the river provided the main commercial transportation across Iowa until the building of the railroads in the 1860s. It rises in southwestern Minnesota and heads through Des Moines (named after the river, not vise-versa) and southeast from there. Once the river traffic ceased, things pretty much came to a halt for many of those places, with the result being a series of interesting little towns that retain much of the look and charm of those long-ago days. The towns on and near the river are a part of an historic district gathered under the auspices of the “Villages of Van Buren,” a series of twelve small burgs located in Van Buren County.
“We have no fast food restaurants and not a single stoplight to alter the ambience that our county prides itself on,” says the brochure put out by the county group.
We figured we’d check it out, see some old buildings and price a few antiques that we don’t really need. A nice enough way to finish off a holiday Sunday afternoon.
One of the villages we visited is called Bentonsport, which was a busy river town even before the state of Iowa was born. Mormon craftsmen, on their way west to Utah from Nauvoo, helped build some of the buildings that still stand. It was the site of a lock and dam, plus paper, grist, saw, linseed oil and woolen mills, and was a major center of commerce, with an estimated one thousand people living there.
Now there are about forty full-time residents, many of whom are involved in a series of small craft shops and businesses that reflect the special nature of the place, which is listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.
One of them is Betty Printy.
She and her blacksmith husband, Bill, operate a shop called “Iron and Lace,” which features Bill’s ironwork and Betty’s pottery and weaving. Betty's pottery features a unique design element that triggered the first sense of serendipity.
“It’s Queen Anne’s Lace,” exclaimed Megan.
Queen Anne's Lace is a wildflower that grows naturally in fields and along roadways.  It’s Megan’s all-time favorite; so much so, that she picked our wedding colors--white and blue--based on the beautiful sight of Queen Anne’s Lace and Cornflowers growing along the country roads around Galva back in our courting days when she was first getting to know the area. The Printys have a large field of these flowers in their garden space that they pick and dry every year. Betty presses a different flower onto each piece of pottery before firing, leaving a lovely, wholly unique pattern on every one.
Hearing that we had struggled to make the flower grow in our own garden, and seeing she had an enthusiast on her hands, Betty invited us out back to dig up a couple of the plants. As we walked through, she gestured to a familiar viney-looking plant that wound ‘round the yard.
“That’s bittersweet. We like to do some things with that, too,” she said.
Serendipity number two.
Regular readers of this column might remember that Bittersweet holds a special place in my heart. It evokes special memories of my childhood, my autumn days, and of my mother. It’s hard to find, yet, here it was, my old-fashioned favorite flourishing in this old-fashioned place.
We were pretty excited about our visit as we prepared to leave, but there was one more surprise in store. I don’t know how the topic of breadmaking came up, but it did, followed by Betty’s casual announcement that she had recently created a clay bread baker for the baking of artisan bread. If there’s one thing I like better than Queen Anne’s Lace and Bittersweet, it’s bread baking, and I’ve been searching for a way to better create the crusty texture required for good hearth bread. She even offered me a cup of her precious sourdough starter the next time I’m in town.
We were a happy pair of backroads travelers as we headed on the winding eastbound trek back to Illinois.
“I’m so glad we did this,” said Megan. “It was like...serendipity.”
You said it, honey.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Take this job and shovel it

I gave my wife a shovel for Mothers’ Day.
Wait. Before all you moms gather outside my door in an angry mob, let
me explain. The shovel had an attachment:
When our boys were younger, I used to be heavily involved in the
procurement and delivery of appropriate Mom’s Day greetings. But
they’re older now. They are mature, responsible men, who are fully
capable of buying and sending the proper card and/or gift to their
mom. And besides, they both have wives who really do remember to do
the right thing at the right time, so I’m pretty much off the hook.
But back to the shovel.
While I’m always (too) quick to note that she’s not my mother, I have
to agree that my valiant spouse deserves as much recognition as
possible on that special day. From me, even, as she surely was stuck
with the task of helping me slowly grow up along with the kids. So, I
made a special holiday offer. I would provide my services on Mothers’
Day afternoon for a round of what we call “point gardening.” It goes
kind of like this:
She points at a bare spot; I dig a hole and plant a plant in the
designated spot. Repeat as needed.
She knows where the plants should go.
I know enough to know I don’t know where they should go.
But I can handle a shovel.
All in all, it is the perfect symbiotic relationship and goes a long
way towards defining the wonderful give-and-take (point-and-dig?)
process that’s made our almost 37 years of marriage seem to zip by
like an extended prom date.
I was reminded that there are additional gender differentials existing
in marriages other than my own Monday night, when I had the pleasure
of presenting a program to a group consisting of all ladies. There
was a dinner before the presentation, and I was invited to join the
group for the meal. I thought I was holding my own,
conversation-wise, when, suddenly, the topic took a dangerous turn:
Husbands and grocery shopping.
I can’t quote the comments exactly, but the crux of the discussion was
this: While it might be nice if husbands helped with the shopping once
in awhile, the truth of the matter is that they’re generally more
trouble than they’re worth. Suddenly, I found myself reduced from my
self-assumed role of liberated helpmate to the status of a 3-year-old
wailing in the seat of a shopping cart and pointing to a box of
chocolate-coated sugar bombs.
I think it all comes down to a basic, fundamental difference:
Women shop. Men buy.
The shopping process, while often tedious to me, does indicate some
measure of thought. It generally includes something called a “list”
and a certain amount of knowledge as to the items already in
possession. On the other hand, my own thoughtless buying sprees tend
to look more like an episode of “Supermarket Sweep,” where I dash
madly through the aisles in an effort to gather as much stuff in as
short a time as possible. It’s quicker, for sure, but I’m not sure
it’s entirely efficient.
My flexible daytime schedule makes me a frequent grocery shopper for
our household. A quick gander at some of the items residing in our
pantry and other storage areas indicates the results of some of my
efforts. Some examples:
•14 cans of Cream of Mushroom soup (just in case)
•Five boxes of the same brand of cereal (I like it)
•Four opened jars of raspberry jam (ditto)
•14 packets of dry yeast (I like to bake bread, though not often 14
loaves at a time)
•Three cloves of garlic (apparently in preparation for the vampire
attacks threatening Galva)
Some of the cans and boxes I’ve purchased over time seem to be from
the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, while other, newer items,
feature labels written in Aramaic and Latin.
But the most horrifying discovery was in the freezer compartment of
our second refrigerator, which is used for soda and other items too
large for our main fridge in the kitchen.
An entire, 12-pound frozen turkey.
I’m not sure when I bought it. I’m sure it seemed like a good deal
(and idea) at the time. But now, there it rests, shrouded in a
frosted plastic wrapper. I can’t quite make out the date on the label,
so I’m considering sending a sample out for carbon-14 testing. But,
chances are, it’s years past its prime, leaving me with a dilemma:
What do you do with an outdated 12-pound turkey? If I put it in the
trash, it will present a way-too-temping opportunity for the raccoons
who travel through my back yard on their nightly fact-finding
missions. I suppose I could just leave it there for my heirs, but
they’re going to have enough trouble deciding what to do with my
valuable collection of used, but unbroken, guitar strings and that
bagful of unmatched socks I’m holding onto. Now that I’ve discovered
it, my conscience is demanding I do something about it, so how about
A proper burial, in a far corner of my back yard, would be a righteous
send-off for my frozen, once-feathered friend. I could even erect a
little headstone like the ones we’ve placed for other departed family
pets. So, I’d like to invite you to the funeral, next Tuesday at ten
o’clock, unless it rains.
Please omit flowers, and don’t worry.
I’ve got a shovel.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Don't buy it, they'll just eat it.

Everybody has a few old saying that they like to trot out once in a
while. Most of them are kind of tired old statements like “A bird in
the hand is worth two in the bush,” and “A penny saved is a penny
earned,” but there’s another bit of wisdom, one that I learned from
my late father-in-law, that came to mind the other day:
“Don’t buy it, they’ll just eat it.”
He coined that phrase in response to the Sisyphean task of stocking
the larder for the hungry minions known as his four children. It was a
phrase, and attitude, we picked up as well, as we dealt with the
unending job of keeping our two growing boys fed. It wasn’t too bad
when they were just little boys, when we still thought we were in
charge. It was when those boys started growing up, things started
getting out of hand. I suppose it started when they got old enough to
bring friends around that I began thinking of these words from the
book of Exodus:
They swarmed over the whole land of Egypt and settled down on every
part of it. Never before had there been such a fierce swarm of
locusts, nor will there ever be.
They covered the surface of the whole land, till it was black with
them. They ate up all the vegetation in the land and the fruit of
whatever trees the hail had spared. Nothing green was left on any tree
or plant throughout the land of Egypt.

But that was nothing.
By the time they reached high school, someone had, apparently, erected
a sign in my front yard. A large neon sign that blinked on and off, repeating this message:
Good Eats.
People who live near places like Yellowstone Park or, say, the Alaskan
wilderness, might rightfully anticipate a sudden invasion by bears. But, in our case, it was sheer terror as, lying in bed, we would hear the ominous “thunk” of car doors closing, followed by rumbling thumps and bumps in the kitchen and pantry. If we were lucky, they would just settle for the snack foods we had left out in hopes of distracting them, like chips cookies and soda pop. Too often, though, they would decide to “cook” (note: no quotation marks are large enough to express
the irony in the use of this word) which meant we were about to be treated to a late-night symphony of scents and sounds produced, inevitably, by the smell of something edible being plunked into a hot frying pan and, a few minutes later, the insistent beeping of the kitchen smoke alarm. Being responsible lads, they would attempt to clear the smoke and “clean up” (see previous ironic note) before going off to hibernate.
“Don’t your sons know we own a dishwasher?” my wife would say
dangerously as she surveyed the disaster zone that had once been a
“Apparently not,” I would reply cautiously, as I set about scraping
down the inside of the microwave with a putty knife.
But nowadays, as empty-nesters, we find ourselves missing having our
sons around our house and home, even if they were steadily eating us
out of it. The main reason is obvious, as we truly enjoy the company
of our sons and their growing families. The other reason is less
obvious, but compelling, as well, for me, at least:
You see, there’s not often much food in this house. Part of it has to
do with our conflicting mealtime schedules, while another reason is
our mutual desire to weigh less than popular circus animals. It’s not
a real problem for my spouse, who subscribes to another old saying,
“moderation in all things,” along with a regular exercise regime to
stay svelte and pretty. I, on the other hand, have no, repeat, no
willpower. I never met a brownie I didn’t like and, when given the
chance, will pile on the calories like an Emperor Penguin anticipating
a long Antarctic winter.
“Don’t buy it, they’ll just eat it” applies to me, now, so you can
imagine my excitement as we anticipated a pair of visits from older
son Colin and his family last weekend as they traveled between
Carbondale and their home in Northern Minnesota.
If you saw me in the supermarket last week, you, no doubt, heard me
whistling a happy little tune as I traveled from aisle to aisle.
“Oh, the kids will like this,” I said to myself, as I packed my cart
with all manner of good and wonderful things.
There was whole milk to supplant the grey-blue skim stuff I generally
splash on my cornflakes. There was a box of a cereal I think was
called Chocolate-coated Sugar Bombs, that looked like a good way to
start a busy day.
It soon became like a mantra: “The kids will like this, the kids will
like this,” I repeated over and over again, as I tossed in treats to
tempt them all.
There were chips and cookies and coffeecake and even a bag of those
cheese curls that turn your fingers, and perhaps your very soul, a
bright orange when you eat them, all dedicated to the happiness and
well-being of my soon-to-arrive family.
My partner in crime even got into the act, baking both a carrot cake
with cream cheese frosting and a killer chocolate truffle cheesecake.
“The kids will like this,” I moaned ecstatically as I licked the spoon.
And one more thing. As I was rolling through the bakery department on
my way to the checkout lane, I spied a beautiful cream-filled doughnut
that looked like just the thing to reward my sometimes-finicky
granddaughter after she finished her sugar bombs.
“Oh, she’ll like this,” I thought happily.
It’s now a brand-new week. The kids have come and gone and come and gone again. Despite some dicy weather in Carbondale, the weekend was a success. Colin, who is a chef, even cooked for his mom on Mother’s Day, creating a true gastronomical climax to the festivities.
What’s left of the cakes will be taken to school, to be safely
consumed by fellow teachers. Everything else is pretty much gone.
Except one thing.
I was poking around in the pantry this morning, wondering if they had,
perhaps, left a handful of sugar bombs when I spotted it. There, on a
shelf where I had tucked it away, sat the doughnut. Cream-filled and
sticking lightly to the waxed bag I bought it in.
I had forgotten to give it to her.
Well, you can’t mail a doughnut, can you?
And there’s even one more old saying that fit the moment perfectly:
“Waste not, want not.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

In the Eye of the Storm

We got our first clue that things might be getting a little, well, intense, when we flipped on the car radio.  We were in Carbondale Friday morning to attend daughter-in-law Geri’s graduation ceremony, where she received her Ph.D. In sociology from Southern Illinois University.  They were really looking forward to the trip, having moved from there last summer to Moorhead, Minnesota, where she is an assistant professor at Minnesota State University and son Colin is an executive chef.  Moorhead is located just on the other side of the river from Faro, North Dakota.
That’s right, Fargo. Home of the great flood of 2009.  After a winter filled with raging blizzards and -30 temps, and a spring made famous by icy, 42-foot flood waters courtesy of the now-famous Red River of the North, they were anticipating a fun-filled weekend that would include a chance to enjoy some real spring weather, plus visits with the many friends they made during Colin’s time as an undergrad at SIU and, later, when they returned for Geri’s graduate work and Colin’s continuing career as a chef in several of the area’s coolest restaurants.  Colin had even published his proposed dining guide on Facebook, where he listed all the places they’d hit while in town.  About the only thing they wouldn’t have time to enjoy was a chance to go camping, which was one of his favorite things to do when he lived in the area.
We arrived late in the day on Thursday and awoke Friday morning to rainy, windy conditions.  Geri had an appointment, so she headed in one direction, while Colin, the grandkids, Megan and I headed for the mall to wait out the rain.  After an hour or so, the storm let up, with the sun even peaking through the clouds a bit.  So, we left the shelter of the mall and headed for our morning’s destination, Makanda, a tiny, mostly forgotten town tucked in a valley in the middle of Giant City State Park, which fills most of the area south of Carbondale.  Makanda is home to a thriving arts and crafts movement, and Megan and I were looking forward to a chance to do a little looking and shopping in the several small shops that inhabit an old boardwalk in the downtown area.
We were driving through the winding, up-and-down road that goes to the town when the wind started picking up again.  
“Turn on the radio,” I said to Colin. “Let’s see what they’re saying about the weather.”
The voice we heard was that of a local radio weatherman.  He sounded kind of confused.  And more than a little concerned.  He was saying that he had never seen storm quite like the one that was now in the vicinity, a comma-shaped front with an actual “eye” producing a brief lull that would soon be replaced by heavy rain and winds in excess of 90 to 100 miles an hour.
In other words, we were about to experience a heckuva storm.  One that would later be officially designated as an “inland hurricane.”
We decided the safest course would be to head back to town.
Rain was falling and the winds were picking up when we finally climbed out of the valley and onto U.S. Highway 51, the one “main” road that travels into Carbondale from the south.
Then it hit.
I live in Galva, so I’ve seen my share of high winds and bad weather.  But I’ve never experienced a storm of such intensity, especially while riding in a car.  With high winds buffeting the car and the air filled with small debris, we finally pulled over and stopped at a county-road intersection, along with several other vehicles, as we gaped at a veritable wall of wind and rain that was approaching. 
We could do nothing but sit, watching in awe as the wind plucked trees from the ground in the woods on both sides of the highway.  A power pole across the intersection from us suddenly sagged, leaving wires draped over the road.  The car rocked violently, as we waited and prayed.
Gradually, the intensity of the wall of wind subsided a bit.  
“We need to get back to Carbondale,” said Colin, who, of course, was thinking and worrying about Geri.  But that was easier said than done, as every path heading north proved to be blocked, either by fallen trees and branches or utility poles, and even by a flooded creek that washed out the road.  We spent a couple of hours attempting to find a clear route, all the while trying to reach Geri via cell phone, which proved fruitless and did nothing to improve Colin’s state of mind.  The car radio told stories of massive damage to Carbondale and the areas to the east and north, which, of course, was exactly where Geri was headed when she left in the morning.
We finally heard from a friend of theirs who had a better cell phone connection.  Geri was safe, and just heading back into Carbondale. She would meet us at the friend’s apartment.
Enough time had passed that hustling crews had cleared portions of highway 51, so we were finally able to pick our way back into the south edge of the city.  Along the way, we saw mile after mile of uprooted trees and utility poles, along with houses and barns torn apart by the wind.  
Not long after we reached the apartment, Colin and Geri were reunited.  She had her own story to tell, having spent time in the basement of the business she was visiting, followed by an extra-slow trip to town on a highway filled with fallen trees and, even, a semi that had been blown over on its side.  The power was out throughout the city, and still is.
Megan and I found our way out of town later that day and headed home with our granddaughter. Our grandson spent the night with a high school friend, while Colin and Geri, determined to get some enjoyment out of the 16-hour drive from Moorhead to Carbondale, planned to hole up with their friends in their darkened apartment.  But then, in a flash of inspiration and with an attitude that says, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” they did something else.  Something that didn’t require electricity or open-for-business restaurants.
They went camping.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Number, please

Times change.
We all know that. And, certainly, some of the biggest changes are in the area of communications, both personal and in a business sense. Email, text messaging, webcams and social/business networking websites are all facts of life that many (especially our kids) absolutely take for granted. And while these advanced methods of communication are amazing, indeed, to a relatively old duffer like me, the biggest change I’ve experienced firsthand might be to something I’ve known all my life:
The telephone.
It used to be the phone was a sort of a centerpiece in a household. It was rarely used by children, operated carefully and with prudence by all, and generally occupied a single, prominent position in the home. Most families only had one, and it almost never rang past a reasonable hour in the evening except to announce an event involving either tragedy or joy.
Growing up, our phone sat on a little table in our front room. It was a squat, black affair that was made of a material that left it both sturdy and quite heavy for its size. The receiver was more like a blunt object than something to talk to grandma with. (In fact, I used to think it would have made a good weapon in a Clue game: “I think it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the telephone.”)
Making a phone call in Galva back in the ’50’s was a simple, quite personal process. You lifted the receiver and, after a short pause, a gentle voice would say, “Number please.” You’d give them the number, or even the name and location of the person you wanted to speak to and, voila, the connection was made. The numbers were simpler, too. Our home phone number was 526, while the designator for my father’s pharmacy was an even-easier-to-remember 69. In a small town like Galva, the process was even more personal. I remember trying to reach my dad at the drugstore one day. The phone company office was just across the street from the building that housed the store, and I guess the volume of calls was light enough to allow the operators, who were housed on the second floor, to gaze out upon the downtown streets. The operator/kid connection went something like this:
She: “Number, please.”
Me: “Uh, 6-9.”
She: “Oh Johnny, are you trying to call your dad? I just saw him go into the post office. Why don’t you try back in a few minutes?”
Eventually, we got dial tone service and switched to seven digit numbers. The advent of area codes upped the total to 10 numbers, which, while providing an efficient way to single-handedly contact virtually anyone I know, taxes my memory at times.
And then there were party lines. By the time I became a regular telephone user, party lines existed pretty much in rural areas only. A party line was basically a single line shared by multiple users, like a big, multi-family extension phone system. While the ringing technology used to notify a specific household that a call was coming in advanced over the years, party lines continued to have an unfortunate, sometimes embarrasing feature: Anybody on your party line could listen to your conversations.
I once had a high school girlfriend who lived in the country, and believe me, the party line her family was connected with had a real dampening effect on our late-night conversations. Heck, when she eventually broke up with me, I didn’t even have to tell people about it. Half of the town knew it was coming before I did.
One of the biggest changes in telephone communications has been the cell phone. More and more, people (like my kids, for instance) have no regular hard-wired phone at all, but just rely on personal cell phones. The biggest problem with this is that there’s no effective way to look up a number, with no system of phone books or directory assistance for cell customers. But, apparently, the convenience and portability of the technology outweighs that problem in a lot of peoples' minds, though I still like having an actual land line in my home.
But even that’s changed. Now, the company that provides your home phone service can also be the guys who bring cable TV or the internet into your house, with both phone and cable companies offering bundled packages that include phone service, multi-channel TV and high-speed internet. The companies that provide our phone service have changed, too. Galva’s phone company used to be a locally owned business run by a family friend who brought my parents a new phone as a housewarming gift when they moved next door to him.
Not any more.
The phone business is big business, with service providers involved in an ongoing process of buyouts and mergers that make them some of the biggest, most active companies in the world.
Big or not, though, I was truly pleased when one provider, Verizon, actually sent an area manager to my place for a face-to-face resolution of an issue I had with some damage done when an unknown vehicle hit a phone line running to my home.
And, I suppose, it’s a good thing to be connected by the big guys, since that means we have access to the latest advances in technology, even the dreaded “call waiting” feature that gives us the opportunity to tell someone, “Excuse me, I have another call coming in that might be more interesting than the one I’m having with you.”
O.K., so I’m not so crazy about that little piece of telephone magic.
The fact is, though, times really do change. And for the most part, that’s probably all right. But, I’ve got to admit, I kinda miss those nice ladies upstairs at the Galva Phone Company.
The ones who always knew where my dad was.