Monday, May 29, 2006

Linda and the Summer of '76, Memories of the Bakery #2

The intoxicating rich smell of yeast overwhelmed me the week after I finished my freshman year in college. I had accepted a summer job in the bakery. I was going to be a a bread trayer. If ever there was an entry level position, this was it. The bread would come out from the room where it was sliced and put into bags. For eight and sometimes more hours a day, another guy and I would take bread off the assembly line and place them either onto plastic trays that were slide into a rack, thirty trays to the rack. Or, depending on where the product was heading, placed in plastic tubs that stacked on top of each other, 15 high. Each tray or tub held ten, one and a half pound loaves, or twelve one pound loves. When a rack or stack of tubs was filled, they were pushed aside for someone in shipping to come in and haul them out to trucks. For me, the nation’s bicentennial summer promised to be long and hot and filled with soul music (as Bobby and Roy, the bagging operators who controlled the music, were both African-American).

But there was a bright side to the monotony. My work station faced the roll packing line and there, maybe thirty feet away was Linda. In her mid-30s, she was a hot blonde fireball. She wore as short of skirt and as much heel as they allowed in the plant, and she had the legs to do it. Her hair was always pulled up, a requirement for working around food, but little ringlets could be seen sticking out from her hat. Loud, she could just as easily tell a joke as to cuss out a supervisor. And her job was every bit as boring as mine. She and Virginia, her co-worker, stood where the hamburger and hotdog buns came off the cooling conveyor. Her job was to lightly place four or six rolls into a slot on another conveyor. Virginia would then place another set of rolls on top and a pocket conveyor would take them through the bagging process.

From where I stood, I could see Linda's backside. Being short, she had to rise up on her toes to reach across the conveyor, a process she’d complete a dozen or so times a minute, which kept her legs well toned. Each time, her muscles tensed just enough to display her tanned and well shaped calves and thighs. For the first week or so, I watched Linda in awe, from the safety of my station. She’d always say hi when I walked by the roll line to go to the bathroom or lounge. Then it happened. One day they had a long run on rolls and Virginia got sick. Having proved that I could pick up these basic skills quickly, and since we were done early, I was asked if I would take Virginia’s place. For the next three hours, I stood by Linda, as together we packed rolls. She was flirty and funny and seemed to take as much delight working next to me as I did of being beside her.

Sometime that evening, Harold, a mechanic, came by with a Mountain Dew. He offered Linda a drink; she took a sip and then asked if I could have some. From the very beginning, Harold had been calling me “college boy,” so I decided I could finish his drink off as pay back. When there was a break in the rolls, I raised the can to my lips, tossed back my head and began chugging. About the second swallow, I realized this wasn’t Mountain Dew, at least not the soft drink variety. There I stood with a mouth full of bourbon and all eyes on me. They assumed I knew it was liquor. It was part luck, part willpower, that I didn’t baptize the rolls with bourbon. My throat burned as I down it all and for the rest of the evening, things were a lot sillier.

Of course, I quickly learned that alcohol wasn’t only the substance being used at the plant. Whenever there was a mechanical problem in the back end of the plant, we’d get a break in production. When this occurred, we were put busy cleaning up, but once things were clean, we were free to get a drink and go out onto the loading dock where those who smoked, would light up. One day, Roy who was operating the slicers and baggers on our shift, lit up a joint and proceeded to get high. When the bread started running again, Roy made a mistake. He had previously blocked a switch that had been causing him problems. Its purpose was to automatically stop the machine if the guard wasn’t fully extended. Roy reached in to clear a jam and the arms that reach out to grab a loaf of bread and pull a bag over it, some forty times a minute, shot out and struck Roy in his lower arm. The machine’s arm was also sharp so that the bags would pull easily off it. Roy ended up with 25 stitches and a broken arm and I was given an opportunity to learn how to operate the machinery. When Roy returned to work, I went back traying bread, but it wouldn’t be long before Roy left for good and I took over operating the machinery on the second shift.

I’m not sure why Roy left. I don’t think anyone in management knew his accident wasn’t really an accident as he had compromised safety devices and was physically impaired. It was only a couple years later, after I had become a supervisor that I realized that how much you didn’t know by being the boss. Although he had his problems, I liked Roy. Being an operator, he watched those of us who were traying bread and treated us well. He had spent ten years in the army, serving a term in Vietnam, which caused him to reconsider making the army a career. Having seen enough shit, he’d adopted a live and let live attitude and never complained. I'm sure smoking pot had a lot to do with his attitude.

I don’t remember much about the Bicentennial that summer, except that I went down to the river on the night of July 4th, for what was supposedly the largest fireworks display the city had seen. They were launched from across the river, next to the permanently moored World War II battleship, the North Carolina. It wasn’t an impressive display and everyone was very disappointed, but then in 1976, there was a lot to be disappointed about. Although the horror of Vietnam was over, there was a sense within the country that we’d failed and made a bad mistake. The economy was shot and interest rates were going through the roof. Gerald Ford was in the White House, due to the moral failings of Nixon and Agnew. People were suggesting that the American era was over, which was daunting prospect for a nineteen year old kid. I had a feeling I might never share in the American Dream, whatever that was. But I had hope. I was in love with a girl my own age who loved me and I had Linda.

I eschewed Linda’s suggestions that we go out or that I stop by her apartment after work. I felt it would be unfair to her, for I knew I would never commit to a woman that was nearly my mother’s age. But I ate her attention up. I felt like a king the night I worked a double shift and she came back unexpectedly, with dinner. She had prepared it herself. I don’t remember what she fixed, but we ate in the break room. Linda sat across the table from me, smiling the whole time. I could tell she was proud of her efforts.

When Linda quit the bakery the next year, to take a much better job, she threw a big party at her apartment. I was definitely out of my element. I’d seen plenty of people smoke marijuana in high school and college, but I was shocked to find several supervisors and mechanics my parents age smoking out on her balcony. I stayed inside, slowly nursing a Jim Beam on the rocks. The party was Linda's last attempt at wooing me. At about 10:30 PM, everyone left quickly. I later learned she conspired to work this out. I was left in the apartment with Linda and a guy from the shipping dock who was stoned and sleeping on her couch. Wrapping her arms around my neck, and rising up on her toes, she surprised me with a deep passionate kiss. It was wonderful and seemed to last forever.

Afterwards, we held each other around the waist. She looked up and asked if my girlfriend could kiss so well. Although I didn’t answer, her question brought me back to reality. Yet, it was the most passionate kiss I’d experienced, although a bit bittersweet as it was my first time kissing a smoker. I declined her offer to go back into her bedroom, instead offering to help clean up. As we straightened up and washed dishes, we joked around and talked about the bakery and recalled memories. When we were done, we woke the guy sleeping on the couch and I gave him a ride home. Linda kissed my cheek and whispered that I should come back, but we both knew I wouldn’t.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Book Review and some other stuff

Philip Gulley, Front Porch Tales (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001)

This is a delightful book. I heard about Philip Gulley from Tom Mullen, who was a speaker at a Writers Conference I attended last month. Mullen is a retired English professor and a Quaker. I laughed so hard at Mullen’s presentation that I decided I had to read Gulley and I’m glad I did. I’d never known any Quaker humorous beforehand. I always through they cherished quietness and that laughing would be a sin or something. The only Quaker joke I’ve known was Richard Nixon (he was supposedly a Quaker). I suppose the Quaker Oats guy is pretty funny looking, and he has low cholesterol to boot. Anyway, Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor who has written a bunch of books about a town called Harmony. Front Porch Tales is his first book. All the tales are short pieces, three to four pages, about life with a few zingers thrown in and some good advice added.

Here’s a few of his zingers:

Psychiatrists called that "enabling denial," but back when… we called it compassion.
On old people smiling at kids in a restaurant: "Now I know why they’re smiling, their kids are grown up."

On dealing with a screaming kid on vacation: "After that, we didn’t hear a peep from him, ear plugs have that effect."

"The moment you tell someone else how to raise their kids, the odds increase that your own children will end up on America’s Most Wanted."

"…the only parent we feel superior to is Ma Barker."

First children have a wardrobe that would put Elizabeth Taylor to shame, second children take after Jed Clampett.

We looked forward to being parents. That’s because no one told us about birthday parties.

I’d never worked on toilets before which is what people say when they’re too cheap to call a plumber."

On boys learning about girls: "Then it became time for us to date, and we had to be sensitive, which meant not laughing out loud at Barry Manilow songs."

Having a cat that would come when called, but only if you’re also using a can opener.

On spoiling those who are sick: "Think about it, when was the last time you saw a child with polio getting spanked?"

I like to think of my yard as a melting pot. Everything is welcomed.

Parting Shots: Am I the only one in this country who hasn’t watched an episode of American Idol? More people voted for that prematurely gray-haired guy from Alabama than for the President? What’s wrong with this picture?

What kind of penalty Lay and Skilling will get for their convictions? Too bad they won't be made to pay back what everyone else lost.

Church league softball starts next week. Tonight was my first chance to practice this year—I’ll probably pay for it tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Troy: A movie review and some other stuff

I watched the movie "Troy" a few days ago. When it was released, the reviews didn’t excite me so I put off seeing it. It would have probably been best enjoyed on a large screen, but since I didn’t get around to it, I waited till it rose to the top of my Netflix queue. It’s certainly an epic, as if there would be another way to tell the tale, but even as an epic, it falls short. It wasn’t nearly as good as the Thai epic, "The Legend of Suriyothai," that I reviewed a few weeks ago.

You often hear the complaint that Hollywood ignores God. With Troy, they show they are ignoring gods on an equal opportunity basis. Where would the Greeks be without the gods constantly intermingling with things? The book is supposedly based on Homer’s The Iliad, in which the gods behave as badly as the mortals fighting the battles. In the movie, you don’t have the gods intervening to save Paris from his duel with Helen’s former husband (I can’t keep all these names straight). Nor do you have Apollo guiding Paris’ arrow into Achilles heel. Instead we’re shown a shot of Paris practicing his marksmanship, undoubtedly preparing him for the showdown with his brother’s killer. From what I understand, the movie intentionally depicted the legend without the gods, as a way to make it more realistic.

Troy is a tragedy. Moral order breaks down. Both sides, but especially the Greeks, succumb to pride and passion. Hector, proud of his military victories refuses to take refuge behind the walls of Troy and is killed by Achilles. Achilles, mad about the death of a friend, becomes reckless and hotheaded, shaming Hectors body by dragging it around the city. This violation leads to his own downfall as an arrow strikes him in the heel, his one vulnerable spot. The movie ignores Achilles near immortality;, it takes an arrow in the heel and several more in the chest to bring about his demise). Furthermore, Brad Pitts creates Achilles into some kind of "self-made hero," an ancient Rambo, that is sanctified in the end. The legend of Troy should be a warning to us all about what happens when we let passion and anger rule our lives. I don’t see a lot of sanctification occurring in the legend. But it’s been several decades since I read it.

I should point out in case you’re familiar with Homer’s work that the film takes additional freedom with his story. The Iliad ends with the death and funeral of Hector. The film continues on to the famed Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy. As the city burns, Paris and many of the leading women, at least the glamorous ones, escaping through a secret tunnel. In the legends, Troy is destroyed, the men all killed and the women are hauled away as slaves, which is a much better ending because in this movie, we’re left with the possibility for a sequel. Will Paris finally grow up and return with his harem to the big screen? May the gods intervene!

ENOUGH ABOUT THAT… I think it's time to change my picture. I'm getting tired of the Boy Scout Cherub that Murf so graciously created. The wings and that halo are heavier than they look. They went with my saving snake story of a few weeks ago, but I’m dreaming of being alone in the mountains... Let me see what I can find.

CHECK IT OUT… Early in my blogging experience, I enjoyed the poems of Seawyf, an Italian poet living in England. At the time her blog was named Medusa (yes, this was long before my snake encounter). I even brought a copy a collection of her poems and reviewed it. Seawyf is back. Check out her new blog, Searching, in which she's looking for something with the determination of a knight searching for the grail. (As her background is in the classics, I she may think my interpretation of Homers is full of crap). Also, welcome back to Murf, who has been on the Honky-tonk circuit in Texas this past week. And Ed Abbey has a great quote today from the real Edward Abbey.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Harvey and Ernest: Memories from the bakery #1

(It appears blogger photograph uploading gizmo isn't working at the present time, I'll try to post a picture later. It's been twenty-five years since I worked in a bakery. This is my first attempt at recalling some of my memories.)

I inherited Harvey and Ernest a few days after I graduated from college. I was a production supervisor in a wholesale bakery, a place where I’d been working since the summer after my freshman year when I took a job there traying off bread. With four years of college under my belt and a philosophy degree to hang on the wall, I decided not to even look for other employment. Of course, now that I’d graduated from college, my schedule was more flexible. When they recruited me to stay on after that first summer, they promised to keep me on second shift so that I’d be able to attend school in the mornings. This worked well, but once I’d graduated, they wanted me on the night shift. I had to pay my dues. Harvey was my oven operator and Ernest ran the pan-stackers. Although they were as different as night and day, I liked both of them.

Ernest got dubbed "Rerun" after the character played by Fred Berry on the popular 70s TV show, "What’s Happening." Both Ernest and Berry were comical, overweight and Africa-American. Harvey was a skinny, aging, white-guy, clueless about the world. As their 22-year-old supervisor, I was almost as clueless as Harvey.

My day began around mid-night, when I came in the plant and spent the first hour developing schedules. Then the first part of my shift reported. In the mixing room was Roosevelt on the mixers and Frank running the make-up equipment that took the dough, shaped it, and placed it into pans. I'll write more about them later. Ernest and Harvey would head back to the panstackers and oven and proof box area. Ernest had to get the pans ready to be put online and Harvey began his morning by making sure the proof box was warm and at the right humidity and then lighting the oven. For the next three hours, it was just the five of us. Roosevelt would start mixing the dough while Frank set up the equipment. In the back room, Ernest would set the machine for the right size pan and arrange the stacks of pans that were needed first. When the first dough was dumped from the mixer (which had a capacity of 2400 pounds), the operation would start. It was mostly automatic, dough pumped from the mixer to the divider and then traveling by various means through the rounder, sheeters and moulders, until shaped into loaves and dropped into the pans.

The automation continued as a conveyor ran the pans to the proof box, then to the oven, then through the depanner, after which the bread headed to the cooler and the pans returned for more dough. At four in the morning, Bobby and his crew came in to run the slicers and baggers and a few minutes later, freshly sliced and wrapped bread would be out in the shipping area. We produced about 7000 pounds of product an hour.

The one similarity Ernest and Harvey shared was solitude. For the most part, they wanted to do their job and be left alone except for an occasional break to smoke a cigarette. They were both good at what they did. Once Ernest got things set up and running smoothly, he’d lean against the machinery and rest. From then on, his role was to clear jams and troubleshoot problems. I knew he’d developed the skill of sleeping upright against the machines. Any change in vibration would wake him up and he’d fix the problem and then return to his nap.

Of course, Ernest insisted he never slept. Even though I knew he was I wasn’t troubled by it because he always got his job done. But I also had a point to prove. One morning, while he was napping and the machines humming smoothly, I found a piece of twine and fashioned a tail, much like you make for a kite, and tied it to a belt loop on the back of his pants. Ernest snoozed. Once he woke, he couldn't see it, he was too big. Over the next several hours, quite a few visitors made their way back to see his tail. He wasn’t too happy with me when I spilled the beans, asking him if he grew the tail while sleeping on the job. It wasn’t a very nice joke and was probably dangerous considering the equipment we worked with, but in time he forgave me and I stopped hounding him about sleeping.

Harvey worked in the most isolated part of the plant. Ernest was located near the receiving docks, so he’d often see people walking by. But nobody walked by Harvey’s workstation unless they wanted to see him or were lost. The only people Harvey saw regularly were supervisors and mechanics. His oversaw the most automotive section in the plant. When things worked properly, it was a breeze. When something went wrong, such as a jam in the oven, Harvey didn’t call just for help. He hit a switch that activated a horn that could be heard throughout the bakery, summoning mechanics and me to drop whatever we were doing and run back to the oven. A major malfunction at that point in production meant we had only a couple of minutes to get things going before losing thousands of loaves of bread. Luckily, things kept humming most of the time.

The mechanics often spent time with Harvey, making minor adjustments, watching to make sure things were running okay, and mostly avoiding work. A couple mechanics took it upon themselves to educate Harvey, something that nearly six decades of life had failed to do. Pornographic magazines, often very graphic, were utilized as textbooks. Being in management, I was spared their instruction, but I always knew when Harvey had received a lesson for he’d be beside himself and would start babbling to me about it. "You wouldn’t believe what that girl was doing," he’d say. "Why would someone do that," he asked? Although I don’t think he was a religious man, the general depravity of the human race troubled Harvey greatly.

My favorite memory concerning Harvey and Ernest happened early one morning. We’d been having trouble with people breaking into cars parked outside the plant, especially older ones which didn't have hood latches inside the car. On these vehicles, the thieves didn't have to get into the car to be able to pop the hood and steal the battery. Ernest drove a big old dark-green Cadillac. To keep it safe, he’d park on the street, right next to the loading dock and under a streetlight. This morning, about 1 AM, as I was going over the schedule with Ernest, telling him how many of what type of pans we’d need, Harvey went out on the loading dock for a smoke. When he returned, he asked Ernest, without sensing anything wrong, "Who’d you get to work on your car at this time of night?" Ernest took off out the door like a locomotive, cussing and screaming. The guys stealing his battery dropped their tools and took off. Harvey had no clue; Ernest gained a pair of pliers and a wrench.

I talked to the police. They told me to mark the batteries. A battery with identifying mark that didn’t belong to the person trying to sell it made it difficult to be resold. Salvage yards would have police check such batteries. I went out that morning and purchased an engraver and offered to write the license plate numbers on top of my employees’ car batteries. Word about this quickly spread around the neighborhood and I don’t remember any more batteries being stolen.

I worked the night shift for a year and would stay at the bakery for another year after that. I still think about those guys and wonder whatever happened to Ernest and Harvey.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My Grandparents and the New York World Fair

The last time I visited my grandma’s house, weeds were growing through the front porch and the two holly bushes by the front stoop had grown so tall they hid the front of the house. It had been nearly 25 years since I’d visited her house, shortly after her death. During this time, the house has sat empty and slowly is falling apart. I wasn’t sure it would even be standing as I walked down the hill. I could barely make out the old road, it was overgrown with trees. Pine trees, nearly mature, had filled in my granddaddy’s fields around the side and behind the house. This was where he also raised a garden for the family, the tobacco being grown on the other side of the highway. The apple trees just behind the house were overgrown and broken up. It had been decades since they’d been pruned.

I stepped upon the porch, unsure if the wood would hold me. It creaked, but was solid. I was revisiting the past. The door creaked as I pushed it open and stepped inside. The house was trashed. Wallpaper was peeling from the walls. What few pieces of furniture remained were broken and scattered around. Much of the plumbing and fixtures had been removed. The back addition to the house was sagging and the back porch was falling down. I didn’t dare step out on it. I entered the kitchen and noticed a pile of papers, mostly cancelled checks and bank statements, on the floor. It appeared someone had been looking for something. Did they find anything of value? I doubt it. The checks were dated from the late 50s through the mid-70s. I looked through a handful. They were made out to the electric coop, a farm supplier, the garage and the hospital. "What a story they might tell," I thought, "if someone organized them."

I spotted a red book underneath the checks and the bank statements. Although I didn’t know it then, it was what I had come for. White and yellow letters proclaimed it to be the "1965 Official Guide, New York World’s Fair." A blue banner across the front noted that this was "All new for 1965." I stuck a few checks into the book, wanting an example of my grandmother’s handwriting, and held on to the book as I made my way out of the house and up the hill.
We were living in Petersburg then. It was the summer between my second and third grade. One afternoon, my grandparents in their Chrysler pulled up in the yard, returning from their trip of lifetime. It must have been early in the summer, for once he started curing tobacco, my granddaddy would have never been able to get away. They were excited, telling us about the New World they’d seen; it would be a world where space travel becomes common and technology creates leisure. Even in the midst of the Cold War, it was a world of hope, symbolized by U. S. Steel’s 12 story Unisphere, the largest globe ever built, and created out of stainless steel so that it would last forever.

Looking through this book, I wonder if my grandma visited the "women’s only" Clairol exhibit. She could have tried out a new hair color while receiving beauty tips from experts while granddaddy checked out the General Cigar’s exhibit, replacing his usual Chesterfield with a fat cheroot. Did the two of them test-drive an Amphicar on Meadow Lake? Did they talk to each other via a picture phone at the Bell exhibit? And did they see what had to be the most amazing exhibit, Michelangelo’s Pieta, a marble statue of Mary holding her son Jesus after he was taken off the cross? This sculpture had been carefully brought in from Rome for the Vatican’s exhibit.

My granddaddy would only raise one more crop of tobacco. It’s odd to think that he was only a year or two older then than I am now. He’d die early in ’67, from emphysema, at age 52. My grandmother would live another decade, suffering also from emphysema, passing away a month after I graduated from High School. They never got to see this new world, but at least they got a glimpse even though it’s not nearly as glamorous as the fair made it out to be.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Unbeknownst to them, Yankees eat grits

I learned something new today. Yankees have always made fun of Southerners eating grits. But for the past 100 plus years, many of them have unknowingly started their day with grits. Cornflakes are made from grits. They’re pressed and dried, and have some seasoning on them, but they’re mainly grits, the inner part of a corn kernel. I think someone ought to posthumously grant W. K. Kellogg the title of a Colonel in the Southern Army.

See what you learn if by touring Kellogg’s "Cereal City" in Battle Creek, Michigan.

For the record, if you want to eat grits the Southern way, make sure you have the kind you have to cook. Instant grits, like instant oatmeal, is only good when you’re on the trail. At home, take the time to cook ‘em and get some decent to eat. And if you really want something special, after you’re grits are cooked, mix in some sharp cheddar cheese and diced hot peppers and bake.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Couple Poems

I've been reading Luci Shaw's collection of poetry, What the Light was Like. Her poem, "Without a Shadow" got me thinking about hiking in the fog and I've penned the following two poems over coffee this morning. The picture to the left is of the Applachian Trail in the Mt. Roger's area of Virginia. I didn't have a scanned copy of a good fog picture, so this one will have to do.

Fog: Golden Gate Grasslands
Fog encased eucalyptus trees
stand lean as soldiers, at attention,
lining the road.

Shouldering my pack,
I follow the dirt path upward
into the grasslands
where fog enslaves,
consuming the trail behind
and hiding my path ahead.

Despite the dampness cooling my skin
and the taste of salt upon my lips,
I push toward freedom
and the sound of the foghorn
at Point Bonita
that calls my name.

Fog: Roan Mountain, Tennessee
Fog moves in
as we crest Roan Mountain.
The trail obscured,
silence engulfs the ghostly forest,
broken occasionally
by the groan of a widow maker.

We call it a day
and warm ourselves with a fire
drinking tea and drying socks.
As afternoon and evening,
twilight and night
merge into one.

At light, we tend our blisters
and shoulder our packs,
hiking north, across a meadow
observing the sunrise
above a blanket of clouds
hiding the valleys below.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Book Review: The Undertaking

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (Penguin Books, 1998).

The picture of Thomas Lynch to the right is from You can go to NPR and hear Thomas Lynch to listen to Lynch read his poetry.

I heard Thomas Lynch speak a few weeks ago and decided I needed to read some of his work. Although it may not be an official title, Lynch is the Poet Laureate of Undertakers. He followed his father’s footsteps into the family business and his children continue the trade. But he’s also a well-known poet in both the United States and Ireland. Lynch repeatedly reminds his readers that a poet’s two main topics are sex and death. He’s certainly qualified to talk about this second. However, The Undertaking is not poetry, although the words often have a poetic quality to them. Through prose, Lynch tells stories about his impressions of the trade.

In his presentation a few weeks ago, he told us a story about one of his uncles in Ireland who had died. He went over to their cottage and was in the kitchen when the priest came in. He overheard some of the conversation and although his aunt’s back was to him, could see the expression on the priest face when he grieving widow said, "you know, Father, he died of gonorrhea."

The priest stumbled for words. "I’m shocked," he said. "I don’t remember having anyone die from that and your husband didn’t seem to be that kind of man. It must have been when he took that job up north."

The wife reassured the priest that her husband was a good man and then they talked about the services.

When the priest left, the daughter went to her mother and asked why she told the priest that he died from gonorrhea. "You know full well he died of diarrhea?"

"I know," the widow told her daughter, "but I’d prefer your father be remembered as the great lover he never was instead of the big shit he always was."

Although the above joke isn’t included in this book (maybe it’s in another of his books), there’s plenty here to laugh about. But there’s also a lot to cry over. Lynch presents a sympathetic portrait of most funeral directors. He tells about a colleague who, for no extra charge, spent 18 hours working on the face and skull of a young girl who had been abducted and beaten to death, just so her mother could see her again. "She was dead, to be sure, and damaged; but her face was hers again, not the madman’s version…. [He] had not raised her from the dead nor hidden the hard facts, but he had retrieved her death from the one who had killed her." (83-4) Lynch admits that some would have given up, left the body in a bag and placed it in the coffin and gone home for cocktails…

Lynch isn’t much for people preplanning their funerals as a way to "avoid bothering" the living. He sees making such arrangements as part of the healing and letting go process. Responding to "Russ," who wanted to preplan his funeral and insisted "It’s my funeral! My money," Lynch wrote: "Here is where I explain to Russ the subtle but important difference between the ‘adjectival’ and ‘possessive’ applications of the first-person singular pronoun of ownership—a difference measured by one’s last breath." (190)

One of the consequences of reading this book is that we're forced to consider how we live our lives. In talking about picking out a casket, he might joke that he doesn’t have a model that will get one into or keep one out of heaven, or one that will turn a frog into a prince or vice-versa. "There isn’t a casket that compensates for neglect nor one that hides true love, honorable conduct, or affection." (181) Life is for living. I recommend this book!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lazy Days and Sundays

The picture to the left is of Virginia City, Nevada in the spring, taken from "Boot Hill." I took this picture in 1989, early in the morning.

A sky void of clouds is a rare thing in these parts, so you got to enjoy them when you can. Today was such a day. This afternoon, I had a hammock calling my name. I have three hammocks in my backyard, strung between maples and an elm. Two are from Central America. They’re colorful and one is short, so that you sit instead of lay in it, with your feet hanging over the side. My other hammock is an "Outer Banks" model, woven out of soft white cotton rope not far from salt water, in the great state of North Carolina. It’s my largest hammock, and the ropes run through oak slats on each end, spreading the hammock apart. This is my favorite one to nap in, the others I more frequently use when I want to read.

The day is warm, upper 60s, and there’s a slight breeze. The leaves have not completely opened, allowing me to look through the canopy into the heavens. The clear sky reminds me of the Intermountain West, where one might go days without seeing a cloud. I drift off, listening to the songs of birds and dreaming of desert skies.

This evening, I notice that my throat is a bit scratchy and my head stuffy. It’s still spring and there’s still things in the air with which my nasal passages have yet to make peace. The sky obviously wasn't as clear at it appeared. Even the dog comes over and begs for me to stratch his nose. Let's pray for a rainy day and Monday to clear the air.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Encountering Medusa, Saving Snakes, and No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The weather was nice. A bunch of us gathered at Dave’s shack on Cedar Creek late yesterday afternoon. After dinner, some grilled chicken with leftovers from the night before, we sat on the porch sampling bottles of Crooked Tree IPA (India Pale Ale). I kept watching the creek thinking I needed to retrieve my fly rod from the truck. It’s a small creek, but supposedly there are some Browns in it. About this time someone headed to the outhouse. "You all need to see this," he yells. We head over there and on the ground, tangled up in some netting, were four large Blue Racers (snakes). Examining the netting, Dave recognizes it as stuff he’s used to save plants from deer. The netting must have been pulled off the plants and blown around on the ground, which formed it into a large ball. These snakes had got tangled into this ball of webbing, creating a Medusa like scene. Since snakes don’t have great capability to back up, they kept trying to get through the netting, which only entangled them more. As you can imagine, by the time we found them, they were plenty mad at the world.

It was obvious that we had to do something. I rejected the call for a mercy killing, thinking I could get them out. Dave found an old pair of scissors in the shack. We came up with a couple of knives. Being careful to avoid their heads, I started cutting the netting. It wasn’t easy as each of these snakes were 3-4 feet or so long and caught into a piece of netting rolled into a ball about two feet in diameter. Sticking out of this ball were four tails and three heads (one head was caught inside the tangled webbing). The first snake was easy to get out. I pinned his head and was able to work the knife between his skin and the nylon webbing, cutting each band. Soon, he was free and took off as soon as I dropped him on the ground. The other three snakes were even more tangled and two of their heads were next to each other. Dave had a stick and was trying to keep one of the snakes away from me as I worked on the other (with only two hands, I could only hold one snake at a time). At some point, the snake got away from Dave’s stick and as I was concentrating on freeing the other snake, I was nailed twice on my hand. Although they’re not poisonous, it didn’t feel particularly good. As the old saying goes, "No good deed goes unpunished."

We finally got the snakes free. The last one died and may have been dead when we started, as it was the one whose head was deeply enmeshed in the netting. It was dark by the time we finished and we quickly packed up and went home.

For previous stories about Sage and Snakes, click here.

You're getting a better view of my hair challenged head than the snakes, but hopefully these pictures give you some idea of what happened last night. I cut the faces of other folks out since I'm not sure they want to be plastered across the WWW. It was too bad that the camera came out after we'd already freed two of the snakes.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

On Hushpuppies, Yankees and Terrorists

The picture to the left was taken along the Appalachian Trail in late Spring. somewhere between Northern Virginia and Southern PA. I'm in need of a hiking trip. I had to postpone my trip west till the fall which makes me sad.

I continued my quest to bring culture above the Mason/Dixon line. Last night I fixed dinner for about 20 certified Yankees. These folks got treated to my barbecue (which implies pork when you’re from North Carolina), coleslaw, hushpuppies, roasted spiced potatoes (not really a southern thing, but what the heck) and plenty of ice tea (here too I don't follow the ways of the south for I hate sweeten tea). It was mostly an all afternoon affair. I had about 10 pounds of lean pork that I started cooking at about 10 AM. It was cooked in my own sauce (vinegar based, which is assumed when your from Eastern North Carolina). The meat was covered with the sauce and placed in a slow cooker and left alone. At 6 PM, about thirty minutes before serving, I took the meat out, discarded the sauce (and fat), chopped the meat and added fresh sauce to it and it was ready to be served.

Before before that, I made the coleslaw (the kind you use Miracle Whip and salad cubes and a pinch of sugar and some celery seeds to make folks think I’m uptown). Then I washed and diced the potatoes. In a plastic bag, I mixed some olive oil and a host of spices and seasonings and put the potatoes in and mixed it all together before laying out on a pan to roast. The last thing I made were the hushpuppies--I taught a few of them how to cook 'em. Every time I’ve fixed them for Yankees, they make a big deal out of them and talk about the heavenly hushpuppies they once had at some diner in Carolinas or Georgia on the way south to that new northern state, Florida. As a lot, it’s not hard to please a punch of Yankees. I served the barbecue on buns and in the typical North Carolina style, placed a scoop of coleslaw on top of the meat, to make the most perfect barbecue sandwich.

Directions for Sage’s Hushpuppies

1 ½ cup cornmeal
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
dash of salt
an onion finely chopped
1 beaten egg
1 cup buttermilk
a couple hot peppers diced (optional).

Mix the above together (mix the dry ingredients first, then add the onions, then the egg and buttermilk). Heat a deep-fryer or a pan with several inches of oil till it’s really hot. Take a teaspoon and scrape up a spoonful of hushpuppy batter (so that it rolls up), then drop it into the oil. Dip your spoon in water before you roll another hushpuppy. After a minute, turn the puppies over still both sides are a nice dark golden brown. The outside should be crusty, the inside soft and tasty. Some people like to put ketchup or honey on it, but I don’t see why one needs any kind of condiments. Enjoy them hot

Meanwhile, on an unrelated topic, I was glad to see that Moussaoui gets to spend the rest of his life in prison. As you know if you’ve read much of this blog, I don’t like the idea of capital punishment. Hopefully, Moussaoui will be quickly forgotten. Had he received death, he’d gotten what he wanted and been seen by many in the world as a hero. This planet doesn’t any more bad guys being sanctified into Islamic martyrs.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Miscellaneous Stuff

I’m beat and so this is going to be a rambling collection of a few things on my mind. Spring is here and the dogwoods are blooming. It is beautiful and luckily we’re beginning to get some rain which has cleansed the air from various pollens that gave me sinus headaches most days last week.

I now have an index of my writings posted. You can to this site and find post by categories… Yes, I really write satire and poetry, just not recently, but you can find old examples of both here.. And if you are looking for my famous cornbread recipe, you can find it here. Check it out!

And although I’m really a winter kind of guy, there are some things that I love to do in the summer. I found a picture of Johnny Mercer’s pier on a blog from North Carolina (heaven on earth for those of you who haven’t been blessed by the Old North State). Thank you Friday Night Fish Fry for allowing me to post it. Can believe people's already on the water down there, but it is May isn't it? I use to spend a lot of time at Johnny Mercer’s, when it was a wooden pier that creaked and moaned when you walked on it. It was classic. Right down the street was the Palm Room and Oyster Bar, where you could get a drink and oysters on the half-shell served with hot sauce or bit of horseradish. That’s all still there, but it's a private club now. Every time a hurricane came through, the pier became a little bit shorter until it barely made it out beyond the breakers. A few years ago they replaced the wooden structure with this cement pier. The charm is gone and they now charge you just to walk on it. We’ll see how long it stands. What is it that the good book says about a house built on sand?

I forgot about Administrative Assistant day last week. I didn’t think about it until driving home when they had a piece about it on NPR It use to be Secretary Day, but Hallmark has gone politically correct. In order to amend for my sin of omission, the next morning, between meeting someone for breakfast and rushing into the office, I went into a local shop (or should that be shoppe since it was a trendy place) and picked out an orchid for K. It was by far the best orchid on display, much nicer than the one I got last year and cost about the same number of greenbacks. There were eight or so blooms on the plant and another four buds ready to bloom. My assistant seemed pleased (she had also forgotten about the day, so it didn't matter that it came a day late). Today I was admiring the plant on her desk and wondered out-loud about when those buds were going to open up. K. laughed. Then I looked closely at the flower for the first time realized it’s a silk plant. Those buds will never open! They’ll be held in eternal suspense. K said she prefers this artificial flower to the real ones I got her last year. I don’t know if she said this to make me feel better or because the one I gave her last year began to die a week later.