Saturday, December 31, 2005

My 100th Post, Happy New Year and All Aboard!

This is my 100th Post here, who'd have guessed?

I flew home early yesterday morning and have hurriedly finished up some things before the end of the year. That being done, I took down the Christmas tree that had dried out considerably in my absence. I’ve put away the ornaments and lights, retired the train for another year, and vacuumed all the needles up (well, I won’t go that far, I’ll be vacuuming needles until it’s time to put next years tree up). Tomorrow afternoon, I’m hopping on a real train, for the run down to Chicago and then southbound to New Orleans. I’m taking some students with me and we’re volunteering for a week of backbreaking work, cleaning up of that city from Katrina. I’m not sure what we’ll find when we step off the “City of New Orleans” and into the “Crescent City” on Monday afternoon. I am also unsure if I’ll have time for blogging or if I’ll even have easy internet access. So if you don’t hear from me for a week, don’t worry, I’ll be back.

The “City of New Orleans” is the only long train in America that I haven’t ridden. At one point in my life, I’d take a two-week train trip every year, taking advantage of the three stops they gave you to see new cities. I’ve ridden on the “Sunset Limited,” running just above the Mexican border through the desert southwest, the “Southwest Chief,” on the Sante Fe line across northern New Mexico and Arizona. I have made at least seven runs on the “California Zephyr,” providing a gorgeous view of the Colorado Mountains and the Sierras. And then there’s the “Empire Builder,” running across the top of our nation with views of the vast plains of North Dakota and of Glacier National Park in Montana. I’ve even traveled on some trains that are now defunct: the “Desert Wind” that rolled from Salt Lake City, through Las Vegas on its way to LA, and the Pioneer, that broke of the California Zephyr at Denver and raced across Southern Wyoming to Ogden, Utah, then northwest to Portland.

On the Eastern side of the country, I’ve ridden the Pennsylvanian many times from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, travelling across the great horseshoe bend west of Altoona. I’ve also taken multi-rides on the “Capitol” from Chicago to Washington and the “Lake Shore Limited” that hugs the Great Lakes as it runs from Chicago to Washington following New York Central’s “20th Century Limited” route. One of my favorite rides was taken in October on the Cardinal, from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia. Its tracks snake their way through the deep valleys of West Virginia, along the New River, passing abandoned coal towns. The Fall colors was just a bit before peak when I made this run. I’ve also been blessed to having had opportunities to ride the north-south trains. The Silver Star and Meteor run down to Florida, the Cresent to Atlanta (It goes on to New Orleans) and the Coast Starlight that rolls down the West Coast from Seattle to Las Angeles. There’s a wonderful section on this route, a hundred or so miles between Oakland and Las Angeles, where you can look out your window and see the Pacific surf below you. And there’s the Texas Eagle that runs across Texas and up to Chicago, stopping at St. Louis.

Now, at last, I’ll get the chance to ride the train Arlo Gutherie made famous when he recorded Steve Goodman’s song, “The City of New Orleans.”

Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,

Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names, Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

All Aboard! (And may you experience many blessings in the New Year!)

Pictures from

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Magic of Mistletoe

Lifestyle reporting by Nevada Jack

There’s something about the way southern gals kiss. They can get all mushy, warm and passionate as they close their eyes and pucker up their lips. Therefore, for the good of the rest of the human race, I determined to discover the reason. My hunch is that Southerners have more practice than their Yankee counter-parts. During the holidays, mistletoe adorns the top of doorframes of so many southern homes, that it provides plenty of excuses for women to get romantic with their lesser halves. Up north, the only mistletoe I’ve seen is plastic or imported in and all wilted. Neither is as potent as fresh mistletoe. Could you imagine a Roman poet wax about the erotic qualities of plastic mistletoe purchased at Wal-Mart?

From what I’ve seen, driving throughout Eastern North Carolina, this year’s mistletoe crop is a hardy one. The parasite is most often found in swampy hardwood bottomlands, where it grows between folks of branches in the upper portion of the trees. Although the trees are now barren for winter, some have so many clumps of mistletoe that tree appears to be an evergreen. Harvesting mistletoe is difficult. You first have to find your way out into the swamps which are often filled with water, then have to climb a tree and cut off a branch, unless of course you want to cut down the tree, which isn’t very good stewardship of our natural resources. Another option is a shotgun. Using #8 birdshot, you aim your shot at the base of a clump of mistletoe will lead to a showering of sprigs. Unfortunately the white berries, which add a nice contrast to the dark green, often don’t survive this harsh way of harvesting. Yet, this isn’t a terrible loss if you have small people around, as the berries are poisonous.

I had hoped to bring some mistletoe back with me to demonstrate it’s power to unsuspecting women up north, but I’ve spent too much time sitting around and am no longer good at climbing trees and scurrying out on branches. Furthermore, the idea of shotguns gives me the willies, as hunters tramping through the swamps down east have been known to use them to pellet the hides of my cousins with #2 buckshot. And besides, for most people, Christmas is over and to surprise them with a sprig of mistletoe now might get me a slap in my furry face. But there’s always next year. Who knows, with all those silly Christmas songs being introduced, maybe someone will sing one that goes, "I saw mommy smooching Nevada Jack underneath the mistletoe last night…" I know it don't exactly rhyme, but give me a break. Us bears aren't know for our musical ability.

On Being Home at Christmas

As most of you know, I don’t tend to write about family or work here. I’m going to break my rule with this post. I don’t think any of my family reads my blog as I haven’t told them about it, but just in case, I’ll probably only leave this up for a few days.

Although I have little desire to live there, as one raised up in North Carolina, the Old North State will always be home and it was good to be there for Christmas this year. However, it would be quite a stress to say that our little trip south was completely idyllic or stress free. Sure, there were moments such as running around in the boat off Lookout, or in the backwaters of lower Cape Fear, walking on the beach, and attending the Candlelight Services on Christmas Eve. But there was also a lot of tension. For the past year, my brothers and sister and I have known that something was happening to Mom. Last summer, after a series of test, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So this year, we all planned on being there on Christmas. We almost made it; one of my brothers who lives six hours away had to cancel at the last minute when a stomach virus ran through his children. But the rest of us were there and even his family got down a few days later. It was good to see everyone and it was good to be there on Christmas morning.

Some might think that evenings around my parent’s house are strange. The TV is seldom on. We read and talk and listen to music and occasionally work puzzles or play games. Mom has always had a habit of reading aloud stuff she finds interesting, although some of the stuff that she read this trip left me scratching my head. Not only was it not interesting, I’m not sure she knew what she was reading. She read odd tid-bits out of the newspaper, and on several occasions re-read the same tid-bit an hour or so later without realizing that she’d already read it. Then there was the evening she picked up and started to read the Consumer Reporter Buyer Guide that had come in the mail. Although none of us, to my knowledge, are in the market for a new car, she’s read about each one, saying this one gets a solid black dot for reliability and this one model gets only half a dot for safety and so forth. Then she’d ask about different cars. "Who makes Acura?" she asked several times. It was all very strange; no one really listened. The rest of us were busy putting together my daughter’s toys or reading our own books and just acknowledged that she had said something. We went to bed when she started in on washing machines.

The touching part of all drama was my father. He really loves my mother, a love that has grown stronger in fifty years of marriage. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for my mother and it shows. Sometimes he does too much, such as answering her questions and taking over for her in the kitchen. But mostly he doesn’t seem to be affected by her strange behavior that, in a heavy enough dose, would drive me up the wall. He’s still her knight in shining armor. I don’t know how he does it and when I compare myself to him, I feel inadequate and wish I could be more like him.

One last thing, on Tuesday, my dad and daughter and I went out with my brother and his son, to do some target shooting out off the lower part of the Cape Fear River. We spent a good hour up on shore and when we came back, the tide had come in quite a bit. My nephew and father and daughter had a good laugh when my brother and I both fell into deep water when we stepped into a hole. Later that night, my daughter told me she was sorry she laughed and assured me that she was ready to go out and get me if I didn’t get up. But we got up fine and nothing except our clothes got wet and we got back into the boat for a chilly ride back to the dock.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Eve along the Carolina Coast

It's Christmas evening and everyone is in bed. I hope your day was wonderful. I don't think I'll write about Christmas day in the blog, but let me share a few memories from yesterday, Christmas Eve, which is even more magical than Christmas day. From this post, you can gleam something of my "raising up" along the coast. Blessings to you all...

Walking along the Masonboro Island side of Carolina Beach Inlet, we’re joined by porpoise 20 feet offshore, swimming in pairs through a deep cut. When they get to the point, between the inlet and ocean, they head further out into the water to where gulls enjoy a feeding frenzy. The birds fill the sky like Japanese Zero’s at Pearl Harbor. Every few seconds one or two of the birds pull back their wings and dive into the water, creating a splash upon impact. Those who get lucky stay fly away with their spoils, those who missed their dinner, return to the bomber squadron and prepare for their next attack. Flipper and his friends join the fun. Fish jump above the water as the big mammals’ dive into their school and feast. One animal’s fun creates terror in another. Soon, the porpoises have had enough and begin to play. Several pair, with the grace of figure skaters, surf. Parallel to each other, they ride the wave, cutting back and forth in unison, only to break away right before it breaks. Others swim in pairs just behind the breakers, their bodies arching out of the water, exposing their dorsal fins in unison. A few minutes later the birds settle down, mostly sitting on the water, bouncing over the choppy swells. The school of fish that provided their midday snack has moved one. Soon, the porpoises leave too. We resume walking on the beach, collecting shells for my daughter to take back to her school.

After our own seafood dinner (crab soup, several varieties of grilled and fried fish, sauté shrimp, hushpuppies and cole slaw), we head to church for the candlelight Christmas Eve service. I watch my daughter as she sits between my mother and me and realize things haven’t changed much since I first attended this service. I’d been just a couple years older than she is now. We sing the same carols and hear the same scriptures read and listen to a sermon on how God works through ordinary folk just like us. It’s all so familiar, yet comfortable in its familiarity. At the closing of the service, everyone holds a candle as we sing Silent Night. My daughter’s face is as serious as her black skirt and red blouse, as she looks into the flame that’s reflected in her eyes. The candlelight makes her blonde hair shine elegantly. I’m glad to be able to share this moment with her at this place where I grew up. I’m glad she can be here with my parents. I’m glad she’s beside my mother. We sing Joy to the World as we leave, our candles still burning and the sanctuary lights still off. At the door, we extinguishing our candles and hand them to an usher so they may be used another year. On the lawn of the church, we stand around and talk. I greet folks I haven’t seen in years. Many have to introduce themselves. Most complain about the cold, but it’s in the mid-40s. Several joke that it mustn’t be cold for me. They’re right. "We wouldn’t be lollygaging outside like this, not if we were up in Michigan," I respond in an attempt to humor them. Soon, everyone heads home. It’s time to get children of all ages to bed before Santa swoops down from the North Pole.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Boating off Cape Lookout

Yesterday my Dad, brother, and I went out of Harkers Island to do some fishing around Cape Lookout. Here’s a glimpse of the trip.

Coming back in from the north, we passed the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the old Coast Guard Station, running parallel to the beach. Dad's at the helm, my brother and I each standing to the side of the console, holding on and leaning forward. The water is unusually glassy this morning, but that changes at the Cape Point. When we crested the first wave and dropped into the trough, Dad turned the bow of the boat into the next wave and cut his speed, carefully taking each wave. The shallow banks extending from the cape, well off shore, create turmoil in the water. Five or six times we rise over the crest of the waves and slid down the backside, until the water returned glassy and we head east, toward the jetty, where we stop to try our luck plugging and jigging for trout. We pull the boat into an open section, between other boats, turned the bow seaward, and set a short anchor, to keep the boat from drifting into the rocks. From there, the three of us stand at the back of the boat and cast toward the rocks. Nothing is biting, at least on our side of the rocks. It appears we’re too late for sea trout, who moved when the water got too cold. Yet, we’re too early for stripper. Other boats, mostly those on the other side of the rocks, caught a few fish, but almost all were too small and released back into the water. We fished for an hour, taking turns to eat a lunch for a can—beanie weenies and sardines—before continuing inland, stopping by Shackleford Banks to hunt for shells, wild horses and the lost community of Diamond City which use to exist there. We found plenty of shells and saw a dozen or so horses, but never found the site of the community that died after a hurricane in the 1890s exposed its vulnerability and sent survivors scurrying back to the mainland.

History runs deeper than the shallow waters along the lower portion of the Outer Banks. Native Americans fished and collected oysters and clams from the backwater sound. Edward Teach, the feared pirate Blackbeard, used the many inlets to slip away from the British Navy as he plunder shipping along the southeast coast. His fate was sealed 30 miles or so north of here when his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground fleeing the British. Afterwards, small fishing communities sprung up along these islands, its residents fighting the sea as they struggled to make a living and to survive the elements. In addition to fishing, they supplemented their income by salvaging from ships that had run aground in the numerous shoals that extend out into the water. Legend has it, some would build fires on the beach during stormy weather, to confuse captains into thinking it was a lighthouse and causing them to run aground. After saving the crew, they’d help themselves to the loot. Because of the treacherous nature of the coast, a small lighthouse at Lookout was replaced in 1859 with one that still towers 163 feet above the sand. The light from the brick structure can be seen 20 miles out into the ocean. In the Civil War, the North sought to quickly gain control of these islands as a base of operation for their blockades of southern ports. After the fall of Fort Macon, a masonry fort that guarded Beaufort (pronounced Boughford in North Carolina), they effectively control over half of North Carolina’s coastline. In early January 1865, a large flotilla of Union warships sought harbor at Morehead City and Beaufort as they waited out a raging nor’easter. A few weeks later, after the largest naval bombardment ever on American soil, they’d capture Fort Fisher and close off the port in Wilmington, the last port open to the Confederacy. Losing their vital supply line to Europe, the Confederate States malnourished army was doomed. Following the Civil War, the island’s residents continued their lonely existence under the watchful eye of the lighthouse. In the 1870s, the lighthouse received its daylight markings, painted black and white in diamonds, to distinguish it from the lights at Hatteras and Oregon Inlet. Today, all the people are gone from the communities on these islands, although their weathered buildings remain. The string of islands is a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Setting course toward the lighthouse, we run parallel to Shackleford Banks, going opposite of a herd of horses running along the shore. After the point, we turn hard to the northeast east and enter Barden Inlet. Hugging the red buoys, we snake our way through the channel through the brown marsh grass, into the back sound between Shackleford and the mainland, keeping a watch for the sifting sandbars. A dozen pelicans fly overhead. A seagull claims a perch on a buoy. When we get into the back sound, between Shackleford and the mainland, Dad opens the motor up. The wind is cold even though the December sun is bright, its rays shimmering along the water as we make our ways toward long leaf pines towering above Harkers Island.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas--from the World's Largest Christmas Tree

Last night my daughter saw the World's Largest Christmas Tree for the first time. When we moved to this area when I was 9, we seldom went into Wilmington as we lived out in the boondocks, in Myrtle Grove Sound. The one exception was at Christmas, when we'd go in to see the World's Largest Living Christmas Tree. The beautiful tree, with multi-colored lights (I know, I know, some of you are going to say I'm inconsistent as I prefer white lights on my tree), is a sight to see. It was first lighted in 1929 and, with the exception of World War 2, has been lighted every year. You should see it from the Cape Fear River Bridge, as it reflects in the water. My daughter wanted to know how big the tree was when I was little--I told her it was probably taller than now, as the tree has lost many branches and seems to be barely hanging on to life. Its sparse branches are covered with Spanish moss. Years ago they installed a utility pole next to the tree and that pole holds the weight of the wire and lights (which are quite heavy). I'm not sure how many more years the tree will be around, and I'll be sad when it goes for I thought I was the luckiest kid around to live so close to the "world's largest living Christmas Tree." Click here for a history of the tree and a daytime picture of it taken three quarters of a century ago. May your holidays be as bright as this tree.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Reminiscing about my childhood home

Sheba, our English Setter, barked incessantly at something back in the drainage ditch. Going to investigate, I found her moving around a pocket in the clay wall of the ditch. Water had been draining out of small caves such as these. "What is it girl?" I asked as I rubbed the dog and got down to peer inside the hole. A good-sized turtle hid inside, its head barely sticking out of its shell. "Good girl," I said, grabbing a stick. I slid the stick underneath its shell and tried to drag the turtle out when all a sudden its head, showing fangs, struck. Dropping the stick, I jumped back as the snake’s body recoiled and Sheba frantically barked. I was maybe ten years old and had come just inches from being bitten by a water moccasin. Leaving the dog to guard the snake, I ran inside and told dad who came out with a hoe and killed the snake. It was too dangerous for something that poisonous to be at the edge of our yard.

The drainage ditch behind our house was a wonderful place to play as a kid. When we first moved here, there was always water flowing through it (I didn’t realize this being an ominous sign as tehy were draining the swampy areas to the south of our house). As kids, playing in the ditch, we hunted for salamanders and turtles, and even caught a few small red-finned pike. Also exciting were the carnivorous plants, especially the Venus flytrap with trigger-hairs in its cupped hands that would imprison an unlucky insect as it feasted on its decaying body. The ditch also served us as a trench for us to re-enact Civil War battles. Having moved here from Petersburg, Virginia, we were well aware of how trenches were used during the Civil War. We fought our battles with friends, unaware that just a mile or so away our ancestors skirmished with Union soldiers, in an attempt to delay the fall of Wilmington until all the provisions at the port had been shipped to Lee’s troops held up in trenches at Petersburg.

Behind the drainage ditch were several square miles of woods and swamps. In this area, these swamps are known as Carolina Bays, low oval shaped depressions filled with peat moss. In all but extremely dry periods, the depressions were filled with water. Ringing these oval depressions were thick undergrowth including live oaks bearded with Spanish moss and towering cypress. The rest of the land, which was only a few feet higher than the bays, consisted of sandy soil that supported tall long-leaf pines, occasional patches of sumac or blackjack oak, and the ubiquitous wiregrass. In ages past, these pine forests of eastern North Carolina supported a thriving industry for naval stores and turpentine and as I got older we found evidence of such. The mature trees had slash marks where sap drained. There were also mounds, which we at first thought were Indian burial grounds, only to later discover they had something to do with burning pines in order to extract the pitch. The woods and bays made a great playground, but until we were older, we could only play there during the winter due to the snakes.

We moved to into the Myrtle Grove Sound area when I was nine years old. This was before the big building boom in Wilmington, which started around 1970 and has continued ever since. There were only seven houses on our street, each sitting on a half-acre. Ours was an exception for my father brought two lots, not wanting to be "crowded in." In addition to the woods behind the house, we could cross the street and ramble through more swamps and pine forest until we came to the headwaters of Whiskey Creek, which I thoroughly explored after I purchased my first canoe when I was sixteen. The woods across the street were the first to go as houses were built up and down the road. By the time I was in high school, all the lots had been used and new roads were being laid. I don’t remember just when the woods behind my parents succumbed to the great urban sprawl of the Southeast. My last trip out through the bays and pine forest was during a break from college. A few years later, as I was surprised to visit one day and discover the ditch had been filled in and where the bays had been stood houses.

I can’t imagine growing up down here now. Houses are everywhere. When I was a child, my friends and I freely roamed the woods in winter and rode our bikes in summer. It’s only a half a mile to the water, where we watched fishing boats and barges make their way up and down the inland waterway as we fished or caught crabs. Today, access to the water is severely restricted, the woods have all disappeared, and I haven’t seen one of those meat-eating flytraps in decades. They say its progress; I have my doubts. As a child, living here, the world seemed endless. Now, children growing up in this neighborhood will have worldviews limited to a fenced half an acre.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I'm out of here (for a week anyway)

I’m out of here tomorrow, heading to North Carolina for a week. I’ll try to get a post or two in while I’m on the road, but don’t hold your breath. I may be to busy trout fishing in the surf, or chowing down on oysters and shrimp, or visiting relatives. It has been almost 20 years since I’ve been home on Christmas Day! And what a year to go back to the Old North State! According to a post in Laurie’s blog (Slowly She Turned), I discovered that some think my home state consist of a bunch of Scrooges at Christmas. Check out the article in the Greensboro News Record. Some big-name accounting firm discovered that Tarheels are spending on average, $1,871 for holiday purchases. WOW, and that’s cheap? According to the article it is less than both the national and the regional spending for Christmas! I can’t believe it! Then, they said that North Carolina charitable giving (which is higher than regional and national averages) is $291. Supposedly, these numbers somehow indicate we’re all Grinches down there (I'd thought we'd get a pat on the back for being above average in giving). I wonder what Christ thinks about a holiday named after him, in which we spend six times more on ourselves and our friends and family than on those in need? Leave it to an accounting firm to determine Christmas joy by the amount people spend. With that thought, I’m out of here. Take care and have fun.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cloning has come to blogland! Panthergirl, using some kind of Sim’s game which is beyond my level of technological expertise, has created a soap opera titled "Adventures in Cyberia." And Sage has just been introduced into the story line. I just wish I his 30 inch waist (you get extra points for that Panther), but wish I didn’t look so much like white trash (you lost your points there Panther). With that tank-top T-shirt, I look like one of my hands should be permanently attached to a can of cheap beer, maybe a Coors or Milwaukee’s Best, of course I wouldn't keep my 30 inch waist drinking that much beer. Panther does rack up the points by shacking me up with Lucy—a redhead with wonderful legs (Isn't she beautiful! I’m sure this will be a steamy relationship, and with her arms crossed like that, I wonder if she ain’t already mad at me). In real life, Lucy communicates with spirits. I thought maybe we had that in common, but then I read further and found out that she talks to dead spirits. Occasionally I’ll have a word or two with guys like George Dickel, Evan Williams, Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. She'll probably think I'm too much of a smart-ass and conjure up some of my high school teachers and get the scoop on me. We’ll just have to wait and see how this relationship hits it off.

Now, you should know that before being introduced into the story, I had no idea as to who my cyber-partner would be, or even if I would have one. Sage’s adventures in Cyberia are out of my control. (If he’d turned out gay, I would have gone into hiding.) Of course, this is all in good fun. I now have two lives—a real one and a cyber one—and have no control over either one of them. So it goes.

If I knew what was going to happen in next episode, I’d drop a hint or two to entice you to come back. But since I don’t (nor do I know when the next episode will be), you’ll have to wait like me. At the end of the first session, Lucy and I and our good friends are all prunes (we spent most of the evening sitting in a hot tub, for heaven’s sake). Maybe in the next installment, Lucy will get a chance to have a baby, or maybe a speeding meteorite will hit me… Who knows. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Truth About Pat Robertson's Disdain for Pie

Politically incorrect investigative reporting by Nevada Jack

The highly reliable news outlet, The Onion has reported that Pat Robertson made anti-American comments about pie. Robertson is a former Presidential candidate, a want-a-be target selector for CIA hitmen, the 700 Club host and the head honcho of his very own Regent University in Virginia Beach. "Well, he didn't publicly slam apple pie," his secretary said in his defense, "he just said pies aren’t delicious, then he got a little carried away and slipped into a tirade."

In an effort to understand Robertson’s latest jeremiad, I spent a day at Regent’s University talking to anyone who could shed light on the subject. In the cafeteria, I spoke with the pastry chef Eloise Smith who said that Robertson always had a piece of pie at lunch until last week. "Sometimes he’d even come back and get a second piece to have with his coffee," according to Eloise. "Something's fishy," I thought to myself, "that there must be some kind of catalyst to cause Robertson to snap." I set out to find the reason.

In the admission department, I spoke with Mr. Bringemin, the director. "You know," he said, "Mr. Robertson always ate pie until that cute little Minnesotan came down here."

"What can you tell me about this Minnesotan," I asked?

"She’s applying for our doctoral program in Communication. She showed up wearing a very short skirt, looked like something a figure skater might wear. It was totally inappropriate, for you know we require our female students to be more modestly attired. They don’t have to wear a burka, although many chose to do so. Some wear them to keep from tempting our male students, others because they’re down right ugly. Of course, we don’t require a burka, just that they have their legs well covered. But you see, this young lady strutted across campus with exposed legs creating mayhem. Over two hundred men received whiplash from doing a double-take, including several of our top athletics and preaching candidates who were temporary put out of commission. Confidentially, let me say off the record," as he lowered his voice, "there were even a few cases of whip-lash among our female students."

I was on to something fishy. I sat down in the chair across from Mr. Bringemin and asked if he’d tell me more. It turns out that this cute Minnesotan was wrapped in a blanket and escorted from campus by security. She kept shouting, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please just give me a chance." With smiles on their faces, the two security officers just say, "Sorry madam, we’re just doing out duty."

"But what does a beautiful women in a skating skirt have to do with pie," I further plied.

"You see, this lady was so intent on getting into our school that she came back the next day. In an effort to prove she could fit into the "Suzie Homemaker" expectations we have for our female students here at Regent, she brought a pie. President Robertson was quite impressed and invited her into his office. It turns out she’d been a flight attendant. Quite professionally, she served Robertson a piece of cherry pie and just as he was getting ready to chow down, picked up a cup and asked, "coffee or tea," and winked. Robertson was hoping for a third option, but that wasn’t to be. "Either one," he said after a few tense moments, then he bit into the pie. Immediately, he spit the pie across the room. Those cherries left red pokey-dots all over her blue burka."

Something was fishy. I had to find this mysterious woman from Minnesota. I bribed a work study student with a stick of chewing gum. She immediately took it and hid it in an undisclosed place. I didn’t know that gum was considered contraband on campus (making it highly sought after and a good bribe). The student gave me her name (which will remain anonymous) and phone number (which I’m keeping for myself). I rang her up and she agreed to meet. I told her not to wear that silly burka, that I'd preferred the skating skirt. She suggested we meet at the Chatterbox Café. (A perfect place for a communication major, I thought) When I got there, she was easy to pick out of the crowd. She was the only one wearing a skating skirt and goosebumps covered her legs, but she had a smile that warmed the room. Everyone else looked as if they were dressed either for a reenactment of the siege of Leningrad or ice fishing. We got ourselves a booth and I gave her my vest to put over her legs to keep her warm and to reduce to the stares we (or more likely she) received from the other patrons.

"Who taught you how to bake pies," I asked?

"My grandma," she said, "she was the wife of a Norwegian fisherman."

"And what was her recipe?"

"For the crust, I take some flour and since grandma never had any Crisco or shortening, she’d use harden codfish oil…"

"That’s enough," I said. I knew immediately the reason Robertson now hates pie. As for the Minnesotan, she’s cute and will be a real catch for some lucky guy, but only if he doesn’t mind eating out or cooking for himself. After making a call back to my contact in the admissions department, I learned that Regent University will accept her as a grad student, but only as a distant learner via the internet. This arrangement protects fellow students and faculty from lustful thoughts about this figure skater with bright blue eyes and a wonderful smile.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Introducing Nevada Jack

Nevada Jack’s writings often appear in this blog. His preferred genres are satire and parody. I thought I better introduce him. Nevada Jack was given to me by some friends right before I first moved west. At first, I called him "Yukon Jack," after the Canadian-copy of Southern Comfort (both terribly sweet whiskies). But then I was asked to do a program for some kids and decided I could use the bear as a prop, but that some of the kids might know Yukon Jack and it wouldn’t be appropriate. So Yukon Jack got on the wagon and has been known as Nevada Jack ever since. He’s a great companion. He never complains and is always even tempered. I hope all my readers have at least one friend so dependable and stable.

I began to use Nevada Jack as a pen name when I was living in Utah and writing for an underground newspaper and didn’t want my house to be burned down by left-over Danites.

If you look back in my blog history, you’ll find many Nevada Jack articles:

November 24: Bush’s New Surprise: America Going Metric!
November 17: Good News for Dark Beer Drinkers
October 20: Organizations Unite to Challenge American Girl
October 16: Al Queda Barber to the Rich and Famous Nabbed
September 22: News you need to know, the 100 minute Bible
July 21: Condoleezza Challenges Satan's Lack of Credibility
July 15: The Short Summer of the Jesus Street Light in Chicago
June 13: And the Winner Is… (on the Michael Jackson trial)
May 28: A Warning for Viagara Users: The True Story

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A morning on skis

The picture to the left is of the neighborhood from behind the wheel (ignore the date, it was taken a week ago).

Below is my account of skiing...

It was a last minute decision. I’d almost decided not to go since no one else wanted to join me. But I couldn’t miss the opportunity and needed to take comp time. Throwing skis and poles into the back of the truck, donning boots and gaiters, a wool sweater and vest, and a fanny pack holding a bottle, extra gloves and a wind shell, I headed south of town to the nature center at the headwaters of Cedar Creek. By the time I get to the parking lot, it’s 30 minutes after sunrise and the air is still cold. I work some wax onto the skis, noticing that the edges have become a bit rusted. I’ll have to take care of that later. I debate putting on my shell, but know when I began to move, I’ll warm up. I quickly step into my skis and begin to stride across a prairie, heading for the hardwoods along the ridge overlooking the creek, picking up a few cockleburs along the way.

The wind bites my face, but I’m working hard enough that by the time I reach the forest, I’m a bit sweaty. I work my way up the hill, steep enough that my skis begin to slip and I break into a herringbone technique for the last fifty feet. There on the top of the ridge, I pick up the boundary trail, the center’s property line running the creek bank down to the opposite side. I make my way eastward, through old growth forest. At times the ridge drops and I quickly shoot downhill, only to have to herringbone again to get back up the next side. At one point, I surprise a large number of turkeys. Are they called a covey or a flock? After the ridge turns north, it drops into the marsh along the creek-bank, where the water out of several small lakes feed into the creek. The trail snakes through the swamp on ground barely higher than the frozen water. The fast flowing creek, in contrast to the still lake water, isn’t yet frozen and a flock of fifty or more duck takes to flight when I come along beside. Soon, I’m back climbing again, past an old milking barn, toward the snow-pack Cloverdale Road.

Crossing the road, I continue to climb, heading north by an old homestead, the house and barn still standing. Three dairy farms use to reside on the property now is set aside as a nature preserve. It must have been a hard life. The last glacier stripped off most of the good topsoil from this land, depositing to the south where it nourishes the fertile farms in north Indiana. From the appearance of the forest, most of the hills had been cut. The exception being a few along the south ridges near the creek and the lines of maples that highlight the former pastures and alfalfa fields. I sure the hills were used as pasture, put was probably contained poor feed and, especially in the spring when things are wet, were muddy from the hooves of cows. But that was another era, as most of the trees are now six to eight inches in diameter, indicating many decades of growth. The farmers struggled just to have some dairy products and maybe a little maple syrup from the trees that lined the fields to sell.

Coming to the north boundary, I pause and stick my skies into the snow, tucking the tops under my arms, as if a short-handled shovel. Its now calm; the sun is high about as high in the southern sky as it gets this time of the year. I’ve made four or five miles. I catch my breath, looking and listening. The faint roar of a distant jet climbing into the atmosphere fails to drown out a woodpecker digging into a nearby tree. A few other birds still hanging out around in winter sing. I notice the bark of the trees. The forest consists of mixed new growth, mostly maple but a few cherry and oak and an occasional cedar. Snow is perched on all branches. I take a drink of water, then continue on. At the northwest boundary point, the trail and property line turns south, across fields of alfalfa, back to Cloverdale Road and the parking lot where my truck awaits.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Daily News: So long Eugene, Richard, and a Christmas Story

Eugene McCarthy died today. I remember meeting him in college during the run-up to the ‘80 campaign, one of the many times he ran for President. He spoke one evening to a gathering of supporters and others of us who were mostly interested because of what he’d done in ’68, when he forced LBJ out of the primaries. At the time I was a registered Republican (This was going to be short-lived as I had a conversion experience and left the party with John Anderson and have never looked back). I remember thinking at the time that McCarthy said a lot of things that made sense. More importantly, he kept us laughing. The one thing I still recall is how he chided automobile makers for building cars with speedometers that go to 120 or 130 miles per hour. At the time, the speed limit was 55 mph and he proposed that having the gauge only go to 85 would allow a "reasonable disregard for the law." The next morning, Eugene was in the philosophy department drinking coffee. I’d stopped in to drop off a paper or something and was invited to sit with him and some of other students and professors. He asked questions and listened to us, seemingly interested in what we had to say. McCarthy served as a representative and senator from the great state of Minnesota, which has given us many fine figure skaters, statesmen and some of our most colorful politicians (their last governor being a prime example of the later).

In other news, Richard Pryor also died. I saw him in Silver Streak… (it was a train movie)

In other news that you’ll not see anywhere else, tonight I read to my daughter L. Frank Baum’s (the Wizard of Oz guy) short story "A Kidnapped Santa Claus." It’s really good; a fairytale that speaks volumes about how good trumps selfishness, envy, hatred and malice.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Glimpse of Grace

This morning was enchanting. Nearly a foot of fresh snow had fallen overnight, blanketing everything. As I was out digging out my truck and the walkway (a snowplow service does the driveway), the overcast sky was just light enough to let the rising sun paint everything pinkish red. I first noticed this looking west, away from the sun. The large white pines there, their green branches heavy with snow, suddenly became light a lighted Christmas tree. I turned around and was surprised not to see the sunrise, but the pinkish cast in the sky could be seen in all directions. I stopped and watched for a few minutes, kicking myself for not picking up any film yesterday. I probably wouldn’t have had time anyway, as the show only lasted a few minutes. As the sun rose higher behind the steely sky, everything returned to grayish tones. It was a grace-filled glimpse of how beautiful the world can be and a wonderful way to begin the day. Now I’m back inside, being warmed by a cup of dark Honduran coffee…

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Ethics of Striving for a Better World

My life is lived out in tension.

I want the world to be a better place. I also desire for people to treat one another with respect. Often, these two desires come into conflict.

How can we encourage people to be better without being perceived as attacking them? Is there a way to accept people without judgment? I hope so, but sometimes find it difficult. I try not to be judgmental. But I find I am judgmental, especially when I find judgments by others that I perceive to be made unfairly or for unjust reasons. Then I become judgmental toward those who are judgmental. Instead of building relationships,, they become fractured. Is there a way to stop the vicious circle of accelerating tension?

I also want to encourage people to live up to their potential. It is from this desire I often resort to parody and satire to challenge those whose actions seem self-righteous or who seem to take for granted their positions of power. The satirist critiques are based upon a strong moral ethic and the sharpness of his or her pen lies in the hypocrisy being practiced by those who are in control. “If mild reproof and counsel could succeed, the satirist would have nothing to do,” according to Ernest Tuveson in an article in “The Satirist’s Art. But when I critique, I run the risk of treating others with less respect that I would like. [for more on satire, see “Edward and Lillian Bloom, Satire’s Persuasive Voice, (Ithaca: Cornell, 1979). A warning however, the Bloom’s never met a compound or complex sentence they didn’t like—me being judgmental again.]

One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past 2 years is Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, 2001). Woodruff draws from early Greek and Chinese philosophy to make the case that reverence is a classic virtue which helps us to do right. “Reverence arises out of an understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death…” “Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods…” “tyranny is the height of irreverence.” “reverence separates leaders from tyrants…” “the reverent leader need not pretend to be godlike; the ideals are godlike enough.”

Woodruff does not deny the importance of humor and mockery in reverence. “Mockery serves reverence in two ways: by reminding stuffed shirts about their imperfections, and by awakening a sense of shame in people who have allowed theirs to lie dormant.” This is good news for me—I can still use humor.

Since reverence makes few demands on belief (it can be practiced across religious lines), then a truly good desire would be that all people of all faiths practice reverence. I think there are deep wells within the Christian tradition from which we can draw. Jesus’ command not to judge, not to hate, and to pray for our enemies (anyone said a prayer for Bin Laden lately? And I don’t think Jesus saying to pray for our enemies’ means for us to pray that he meets his maker sooner.) Instead, we love others and pray even for our persecutors, for when we act in such a way, we will have a hard time demonizing them. We should pray that our enemies have reverence! I like that.

Okay, this is heavy stuff—reminds me of the Ethics classes I took as an undergrad in the philosophy department. Let me end it with one quote from another of my favorite reverent/irreverent philosophers, Edward Abbey (who died in 1989, but lives on in Ed Abbey’s blog): “I hate intellectual discussion. When I hear the words phenomenology or structuralism, I reach for my buck knife.” -from, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Monday, December 05, 2005

Thoughts on the Christmas Season

Suzie's stirring the pot again over at Assorted Babble, supposedly exposing some liberal conspiracy to neuter Christmas by ripping Christ out of the holiday. As I often do, I added my two cents worth. Just in case you’re wondering… I don’t think there is a vast left wing conspiracy to take away Christmas. Sure, there are a few radicals out there, but then again, the further right or left one gets from the mainstream, the crazier the folks get. As Christians, we make ourselves look bad when we feel threatened and start shooting from the hip. Such a response isn’t "Christ-like" nor does it bring out the best in us. So I don’t worry about folks trying to take Christ out of Christmas or whether or not the 10 Commandments are planted on the courthouse lawn. (another big issue for this group.)

I think some of the people leading such crusades to keep Chirst in Christmas or to keep the Commandments posted are prideful and want to be seen as the savior of Christianity. But Christianity doesn’t need a savior; unless I'm greatly mistaken and we're all fools, we already have the Savior. Secondly, they feel they are leading a righteous campaign, but in doing so they ignore the greater picture. If they want to be a Fundamentalist, they should realize there are a lot of things in our society that doesn’t conform to the teachings of Jesus—and shoving our symbols down the throats of others isn’t one of them. If we really wanted to be radical as Christians, we’d take serious the teachings of Jesus or the meaning of all ten of the commandments, instead of randomly picking and choosing those we want to follow.

As an example of our picking and choosing, we never hear much about the 10th Commandment—thou shalt not covet. Could you imagine Alan Greenspan telling folks to obey the 10th Commandment? The economy would come to a screeching halt, if people listened (which they wouldn’t). On the other hand, the only hope we really have is to build a society based on needs and not wants, one that doesn’t waste everything in an attempt to "have more."

On another note, as I get older I find that I like Advent hymns just as much as I do the more joyous Christmas hymns. The cry, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" in a minor key, reminds me that we often long for the wrong things and there is a whole lot more for which we should strive or desire. The hymn, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" haunts me. Everyone should have an opportunity to hear its tune, "Picardy" played on a decent pipe organ in a gothic setting.

Christmas is a time to be with family, to watch the faces of children as they discover the excitement, to celebrate our lives and to do what we can to make the lives of others easier. It’s also, for many people, a time of great sadness. In High School, I lost one of my best friends the Friday we got out of school. He was riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle and someone ran a red-light, crashing into the bike and throwing him across the intersection. It was a strange Christmas—to go to a funeral two days before the holiday. That was a long time ago, but it also reminds me that as we celebrate, we need to pay special attention to those who are not joyous.

There are big fluffy flakes coming down right now--it's looking a lot like Christmas!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

An Anniversary

It was a year ago today I set up this blog. Didn’t really know why or even what I was doing, it just looked like something fun to do as I read some other blogs. It took a while for me to gain a voice here. I’ve tried to play around with various genres: poetry, satire, parody, nature, food and travel. It’s been an interesting experience as I try to keep work and family out of the post for privacy reasons and so I can say what I’m feeling without looking over my shoulder or asking permission. Hopefully, some of you have been amused, some of you have been entertained, and occasionally, a few of you have had your conscience pricked. Some of you probably even find me to be a bit of a prick (like only baking pies in pottery pie plates or cornbread in cast iron skillets and some of my other "standards.) I appreciate all your comments and have enjoyed meeting and discovering the uniqueness about each of you that read and post. Thanks! Now lets see where this second year takes me…

Although today is an anniversary, there are no parties planned. Sorry to disappoint you, but if you like, have a drink this evening on me, toasting in my direction as I’ll be at a Christmas party and will need all the help I can get!

By the way, I still don't know what I'm doing. For the life of me, I haven't been able to figure out how to put people's blogs that I read on the sidelines or how to monitor where you all come from and all those other neat things that some of you are so good at.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Lunch at Cracker Barrel

Lunch was at Cracker Barrel today. That’s right, Cracker Barrel; the faux country restaurant chain littered along Eisenhower’s interstate highways. I wonder if Ike would have pushed his vision had he known its impact on American eating habits? Now, you might think I’d like Cracker Barrel since I write about baking cornbread and cooking beans. And normally I don’t mind eating there, especially if it’s a toss between Cracker Barrel and McDonalds. After all, for a bit over 5 bucks, I can get a bowl of beans and turnip greens, a couple corn muffins and some ice tea. That’s not a whole lot more than a big hamburger, fries and a coke. But today, I didn’t want to eat at Cracker Barrel. I was in Lansing, our state capital and right down the street from where we had been were several Middle Eastern and South Asian establishments. My mouth was watering for some good ethnic food that’s not normally available here unless I’m in the kitchen. The smells of curry and the taste of spicy hummus were calling my name. But that wasn’t to be.

"You know I don’t like Indian and don’t want to try Middle Eastern," I was informed. "Why don’t we eat at Cracker Barrel, you can get greens," as if I was receiving some great consolation prize.

Disappointed and disgruntle, I slouched into a Cracker Barrel out off I-96. The place was packed. We had to wait a good ten minutes in their kitsch filled gift shop. For 30 bucks, you can buy a complete cornbread kit including a square cast iron frying pan (pre-seasoned, none the less), a handy mitt (as if I’d need another), some mix, and a recipe booklet. I passed. You can also get all kinds of American trinkets, out-sourced to China no less, and enough sugary candy to pay for my dentist’s boat. I was boiling. We were finally sat at a table with a waitress who couldn’t seem to understand why I wanted to put hot vinegar (instead of plain vinegar) on my greens. Steam began to come out of my ears. I even ignored those brainteaser games found on every table in the chain. I’m sure you know the kind, where you jump golf tees in order to discover whether you’re a genius or a bumbling idiot. Today wasn’t my day to try it. I was already feeling like the bumbling idiot.

Okay, now I’ve let off steam… maybe I can sleep soundly tonight.

On another note, the snow tonight is beautiful. As it does when it’s really cold and the snow is crunchy, it looked like there were diamonds embedded in the snow.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Late Season Canoe Trip

I’ve been working hard lately, so I took some comp time yesterday morning to make one last canoe trip for 2005—I did it solo in weather that was just above the freezing mark. In a month, this river and all others in this region will be iced over. To some, this might not sound appealing, but to me it was a taste of heaven. I saw no one, not even in the park where I took out. I was alone in my boat, watching nature and enjoying the elements. I hope you enjoy my brief remembrance of the trip.

The tempered-gray sky spits sleet as I slid my canoe into the water below McKeow’s Bridge. It’s barely above freezing. Crawling into the boat, I position myself on my knees, just behind the middle point, and use the paddle to push off. The boat is positioned up river, at an angle, so that the current catches the bow and quickly spins me into the channel, pointing down river. I dig the paddle into the water, with a hook on the end to keep it straight, and take off toward town, eight miles away. A few hundred yards downstream, a great blue heron rises up from the its perch, its large wing-span and long-bent neck looking like left-over traits from some prehistoric age. The bird glides down river, as if a guide. He occasionally stops at a log along the blank, allowing me to nearly catch up, only to take off again in flight as I approach. This occurs over and over again, until finally, a good distance down stream, at a point where the river is wide, he turns and on the far side, flies up river toward his home, staying clear of my canoe. A short while later another heron takes over and leads me further down river.

The sleet picks up and pelts my face. Attempting to read the river, I squint, looking for V’s facing down river. Coming around a bend, the wind suddenly blows against me. The water is deeper and there is no current. I shiver and dig my paddle deeper in order to make headway. Soon, the water is shallower and faster, gurgling over rocks, as it pulls the boat quickly downstream. Another bend and the wind abates, but not for long. As with the herons, the cycle repeats itself over and over.

The trees along the bottomland are bare, hibernating for winter. A few isolated pines and an occasional patch of moss provide the only greenery. On tree branches, I watch the few birds sticking it out in winter: a few flickers, some small songbirds, a cardinal. In the distance I hear the call of a crow. A few squirrels run up and down trees, their summer nest still preciously perched near the top of the trees. At one point, I am surprised looking at a tree recently split during a storm, to see a squirrel pokes it’s head out of a the hollow middle. Seeing me, he ducks back inside, not wanting to give out the location of his new home, I’m sure. In the bare forest, I even spot a few abandoned hornet nests.

I stay warm by working hard, but sitting in the bottom of the boat, my feet freeze. After tiring, I spot an eddy down stream and maneuver the boat so that the current pulls me into the calm waters. I pour a cup of tea from a thermos and sit for a few minutes, enjoying the warmth of the liquid as I make a few notes in my journal. Sitting is too cold, so I push the bow back into the stream and allow it to pull the boat out into the current and continue on downstream. The swampland gives away to higher banks. When I get in sight of the railroad trestle for the long abandoned C, K & S, near the site of the old foundry, the hardwood bottomland gives way to industry. There are still a few factories here in operation. I quickly pass under the trestle and under a couple other bridges, before coming to the landing at Tyden Park. I spot my truck, sitting alone in the parking lot. A few minutes later, I’ve load my canoe and head home in time for lunch.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Is this the "first-dog-elect" of Honduras?

A few weeks ago I posted about the upcoming Honduran elections with a picture of me hold the rather lively dog of one of the candidates (unlike his master, he wasn't real keen on having his picture taken, but he loved to play). This is "Mel's" dog, who lives in the same neighborhood of a friend. I didn't get to meet Mel, but his dog was wandering the streets one morning (probably while his owner was out campaigning). The elections were yesterday and this morning, according to the BBC, Mel is in the lead and has declared victory. However, only a small percentage of the votes have been counted so it may change and who knows, and of course, the Supreme Court hasn't had an opportunity to vote yet... (slap, you're a bad boy, Sage) I don't know much about Mel, but I like his dog!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Christmas Trees, Railroads, Cornbread and an Endorsement

The Christmas tree went up yesterday. I’m back in the railroad business, running a line in which featherbedding is not only allowed, but encouraged! I love lying by the tree, watching the engine navigate the tracks, pulling cars from lines that no longer exist, at least not independently: the Burlington, the Maine Central, Erie Lackawanna, B&O, the Santa Fe, the Western Pacific. Add a fire in the hearth and I can lay there for hours.

My daughter shares in the excitement of Christmas and is willing to forgo most anything in order to haul the boxes out of the attic. After getting the tree and sitting it in the living room, I make her wait while I string lights. She didn’t even ask about using multi-colored light this year. She’s either old enough to understand the magical appeal of miniature white lights, or she’s learned there are some things for which I’m pig-headed and she better not go there. After getting the lights strung, we pause for dinner.

One of the benefits of mooching off of friends for Thanksgiving is that you don’t have to worry about leftovers. Because I was going to be close to home all day, I figured it was the perfect time to make a pot of beans (of the pinto variety). When you use dry beans, they need to cook for a good while. I threw in a ham bone I’d saved and let it boil gently until the beans were tender. I also fixed cornbread (check out my recipe below) and diced up some onions. Dinner consisted of a bowl of pinto beans topped off with diced onions, a chunk of cornbread, washed down with a bottle of Southwick Irish Ale. Sometime I’ll have to post about my favorite restaurant in Bastian, Virginia, right by I-77 and the Appalachian Trail, where you use to be able to get a bowl of pinto beans with onions on top and a slice of cornbread for a buck twenty-five.

After dinner, we put ornaments on the tree. This always brings back memories. Most of my ornaments have either been gifts or have been picked up while traveling or living in various places. My favorite is a hand-carved boot sent to me by some guy down in Florida the year I completed hiking the Appalachian Trail. Then there is the one from the Chateau Lake Louise and numerous other National Parks and lodges, all which have special memories. Of course, having grown up on the Carolina coast, there is a collection of North Carolina lighthouses. I had to pause this year when putting up a collection of Boy Scout ornaments, all which came from National Capital Council, where a friend of mine was Scout Executive. Ron died this past year from a brain tumor. They’ll be no more of those ornaments, but I’m thankful for the memories they bring back. The tree is finished by bedtime; clean-up can wait till tomorrow.

Sage’s Cornbread (remember—ingredients are approximate)

Preheat oven to around 425 degrees F.
Mix together:
1 cup of yellow cornmeal
1 cup of white flour
3 teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of baking soda
Dash of salt
2 tablespoons of sugar

Add one beaten egg (make sure it’s black and blue) and a cup of buttermilk (pour yourself a second cup to enjoy while baking). Mix until all the dry ingredients are wet.

Put approximately ¼ cup of Crisco (or use bacon fat if you can spare the cholesterol—it’ll taste heavenly and if you eat of it, you’ll find yourself heavenly bound) into a cast iron frying pan. Melt the fat/shortening. Add the mix into the frying pan and bake somewhere around 20 minutes (or until your toothpick comes out clean).

Now before you Southerners get all upset about me putting sugar in cornbread—as if I’m a Yankee—let me suggest you try it. They may not always be right up here, but sometimes they do have good ideas.

On other news, Lauire, over at Slowly She Turned, gave this endorsement of my blog: “I like smart-ass pie-baking dark beer drinking desert rats.” THANKS! That’s the best compliment I’ve had since my mother called me Sonny. Lauire and friends publish a web-journal titled “Tar Heel Tavern. Check it out!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving day in the upper midwest is wintry. The wind has blown all night, mixed in with occasionally snow and freezing rain. After a rather mild fall, it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit at 7 AM this morning. It’s a good morning to hang around inside, enjoy the fire place, drink dark roasted coffee from Honduras, wonder if we’ll make the drive to friends this afternoon, all while being grateful for the love of a benevolent God.

And while I was doing my best to do nothing, Nevada Jack, my alter-ego, was pounding away at the keyboard… When he heard me report the temperature this morning, in Fahrenheit, a light went off in his little head--hence the previous post (I had to wait till he finished to get to the computer).

Bush's New Surprise: America going metric!

Politically incorrect reporting by Nevada Jack

Rumor has it that several Republican congressmen, at the encouragement of the White House, will introduced legislation early next year calling for America to join the global community and adopt the metric system.

According to insiders, the President’s physician and mental health counselors are driving this unprecedented change. Unidentified sources, close to the President, acknowledge the tension every morning when the President receives his daily weather briefing. "I’d prefer to give him the number of car bombing in Iraq as to tell him the daily temperatures," one anonymous staffer admitted. "As soon as he hears the word Fahrenheit, the man goes ballistic. He forgets all about the weather and starts shouting at his FBI advisors, asking if they’ve gotten anything on Michael Moore yet."

Michael Moore is the producer of the documentary Fahrenheit 911, which raised questions about the competency of the Bush’s presidency.

"The Docs recommended he receive such reports in Celsius," the unidentified staffer reported, "as a way to calm his nerves and lower his blood pressure. It took a few weeks for him to understand how the scale works, but after sweating it out a few days in the heat of summer, in which the President dressed for an cool autumn weather because the temps in the low 40s C, he quickly learned."

"The President was a good sport about this," another staffer noted. "He doesn’t admit he’s wrong, so he’d leave on his sweater even though it was hotter than hell."

Supposedly, according to the same undisclosed source, the President began asking questions about the metric system and how it worked. "Even I can divide by 10s," the President reportedly bragged. "I’d always had trouble with my numbers when dealing with fractions and having do divide by 12."

"Mr. Bush became become a starch proponent of the metric system," according to Mr. Rove. "But don’t blame him if you don’t like us going metric, blame Mr. Moore. If it wasn’t for Fahrenheit 911, we wouldn’t be having this problem." With tears in his eyes, Karl Rove concluded his remarks, " Michael Moore and his fellow Democrats are ruining America."

A quick poll of people on the street showed apathy toward the President’s ideas. "In the olden days, kings could change measuring units based on their size of their shoes or the length of their arms, I suppose the President could change things for his emotional well being," one resigned citizen said.

It should be noted that Mr. Bush isn’t the first Republican President to flirt with the metric system. Chubby Howard Taft considered changing the nation’s system of weights, thinking 159 kilograms sounded better than 350 pounds. Congress in those days had more backbone than today. They were willing to stand up to the President, even one larger than a refrigerator (although few people knew what refrigerators were back then). President Taft's idea died when the Speaker of the House told him: "get real or get a hobby."

Friday, November 18, 2005

Living on the edge of town at the beginning of winter

The leaves are gone; now blanketed under snow. The woods, which up to a couple weeks ago were obscured with orange and red leaves, are barren. Exposed trunks stand at attention, limbs reaching skyward. The gray steely sky seems colder amidst the nakedness. I zip my jacket to my neck and briskly walk along the fence line that separates the pasture from the woods. My dog zigzags back and forth across the field, obviously picking up the scent of deer that feed here. As the shrouded sun drops closer to the southwest horizon, the sky turns pink as if there’s a fire deep in the woods. The pond, with thin ice around the edge, assumes the sky’s color. For a moment I stand in awe, but darkness isn’t far behind. Whistling at the dog, I turn toward home, crossing the dam cutting across the field. Darkness descends quickly and we speed up. The warm light shining through the windows of distant houses look warm and inviting. As I get closer to the neighborhood, the rich aroma of a wood smoke from a neighbor’s fireplace awakens my senses. Before going in, I stop by the woodpile and pick up an armload for the evening, making sure I have a few pieces of split cherry. Thirty minutes later, I sit on the floor in front of a blazing fire sipping on a hot-buttered rum. My dog comes over and plops himself on top of the book I’d planned to read. He lays his head in my lap and I scratch his ears. All is well.

Hot Buttered Rum
(This is my only mixed drink recipe, normally I take my spirits on the rocks, but this is good on a cold winter evening and especially after skiing. Like most of my cooking, the recipe is only an approximation)

Mix: (prepare at the beginning of the season and freeze)
Quart of Ice Cream (invest in some good stuff)
Pound of real butter (not margarine)
Pound of light brown sugar
Soften ice cream and let butter take on room temperature. Mix together and add nutmeg and cinnamon to taste. Place in a sealed freezer container.

To fix a drink: Place two tablespoon or so of the mix into a mug. Add boiling water, then a shot of rum, and top off with whip cream and a stick of cinnamon (serves as the stirring stick). Sit back and relax.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Good News for Dark Beer Drinkers

Politically Incorrect Reporting by Nevada Jack

Researchers at Oregon State University announced yesterday that flavonids, a compound found in hops, can be useful in eliminating "free radicals." This discovery may provide another tool in the fight against cancer. Since hops are primarily used in beer, the share prices for stock in Anheuser-Busch (BUD)shot up 24% by mid-afternoon. But after such stellar gains, the price dropped to a new low by the bell. Traders quickly started dumping BUD when news got around that traditional American lagers like Budweiser contain only a trace of hops. Also driving the stock price down was the claim made by Miller Brewing Company that Anheuser-Busch has changed their formula for Bud Light. Bud Light brewers deny this, but beer connoisseur Billy Bob Smith supported Miller’s claim, suggesting that Bud Light now contains even more swamp water.

Oregon State's findings are good news for microbreweries who make much of the darker beers consumed in America. Since Porters, Stouts and Ales contain more hops, they thereby contain more flavonids. Scientists were cautious about suggestiong darker beers, as they have more hops than their lighter cousins. A professor at the press conference in Corvallis refused to speculate when a reporter asked if his findings mean we should consume more beer. However, it should be noted that following the press conference, all the scientists were seen drinking Oregon’s own, Pete’s Wicked Ale, at a local pub.

The press conference broke out into a riot when scientists announced plans to hire research assistants to help them study the relation of hops and beer to cancer prevention. Thousands of students rushed the podium, hoping to obtain one of the coveted positions. The admission office was suddenly overflowed with applicants from their rival, the University of Oregon, as students positioned themselves to participate in such noteworthy research. By the end of the day, the Corvallis Police Chief called the Governor, requesting the National Guard be mobilized. "This is just what we needed, a scientific excuse for college students to drink more beer," the chief whined.

In related news, President George Bush is now serving dark beer at cabinet meetings, dispelling rumors that his staff only drinks Busch Lite. "This stuff gets rid of free radicals," he told his staff as he popped open bottles and passed them around. "First, let’s drink to Al Franken’s demise." As the meeting continued, new rounds were dedicated to a different radical in the media. Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, and Alfred E. Newman each had their turn. By the time the meeting adjourned, no one in the room could find Iraq on the map, nor did they care. Condoleezza Rice, reporting in my speakerphone from the Middle East, expressed her frustration at not being able to join the fun. "They don’t even sell beer here," she complained. The president said he’d look into the situation, reminding everyone that freedom means you can choose between a porter and stout.

Several conservative columnists also joined the campaign to free the nation of radicals. Bill O’Reilly expressed his preference for Guinness, reminding listeners of his Irish roots. Rush Limbaugh, rubbing his belly, laughed that he has been trying to rid the nation of free radicals for years. However, conservative columnist Ann Coulter refused to join the bandwagon. "Nobody really cares what I say," the leggy blond reported. "I’d be all washed up if I grew a beer belly like Rush." Last month, the "Liberal Men’s Room, a chauvinistic collection of male liberal media moguls, honored Ann as the hated conservative columnist they’d most like to love.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Honduran Food

World traveler and food connoisseur Suzie, who must be related to author Calvin Trillin (although she don't claim him for their politics don't mix), has been after me to write something about my experiences with food in Honduras. I will attempt to satisfy her palate, but in all fairness think she should reciprocate and give us her secret for staying so slim and in shape as she enjoys the world’s cuisine. How about it Suzie? Suzie is a good friend and was concerned about my own diet, wondering if I subsisted on the peanut butter and crackers we'd purchased for hurricane preparation. I assure you that weren’t the case. However, I suppose eating that much peanut butter could be another reason not needing Imodium AD!

When I travel, I try to eat traditional foods. A few years ago in Korea, I went nearly ten days without a western meal! It was wonderful, but I digress.

First, let me say something about traditional food in Honduras. One of the things that impress me about the folks in the mountain villages is the self-sufficiency of the families who own some land. Their fenced yards include a number of citrus trees (oranges, grapefruit and lemons), a few banana trees (or are they bushes) and some coffee plants. They’ll even do their own drying and roasting of coffee beans. On a piece of mountain ground, they’ll grow corn, beans, and other vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and badasde along with more coffee and maybe pineapple. Almost all villagers have chickens (for eggs) and a few will have hogs. Some have boxed bee hives like we know of in the United States, but most will harvest honey from hives they find in hollow trees. The most unique beehive I saw was a section of a tree that had been cut down (I posted a picture of the hive earlier). This hive was discovered up on the mountain and they’d blocked in the entrance for the bees, and cut the tree down with a machete (I can’t imagine this was done without a battle with a few swarming bees). Then they cut one end of the tree with a saw, at the point the hollow section began. This end was plugged with mud. The log sits above the ground on two Y sticks. When they are ready to harvest the honey, they’ll build a fire at the base to drive out the bees, then dig out the packed dirt on one end and retrieve the honey.

Traditional meals generally include tortillas, fried beans, bananas or papayas, eggs, a starchy vegetable and, for one who likes sharp cheddar, some pretty bad cheese. The tortillas are mostly with ground corn, but sometimes with flour. The bananas or papayas are boiled or friend within honey or some sweetener. The eggs can be fried or scrambled. The starchy vegetable could be badasde (a starchy vegetable that looks like an avocado with ridges and tasted like a cross between a potato and squash) or yucca. In most cities, you can get fried chicken and steaks, although the quality of the meat is not always the best. Power Chicken (that’s their name, instead of pollo grande or something) is a Honduran franchise that’s much better than KFC. In addition to great chicken, they have good baby-back pork ribs, but a bit fatty for my palate.

For those tired of eating the Honduran food, there seems to be Chinese restaurants in most small towns, and you can find Wendy’s and MacDonalds and KFC, among other familiar places in the cities. Outside of the Wendy’s in the San Pedro Sula airport, I never tried any of these. I enjoyed the restaurants in Tegucigalpa (along with Copan) more than San Pedro Sula. The capital and Copan are both nestled in the mountains and cooler that San Pedro. Many of the better eating places there are in the open, under thatched roofs, where you are protected from the sun and rain, but able to enjoy the breeze. However, in Tegucipalpa, you have to deal with auto exhaust and the honking of horns, unless you carefully choose the eating establishment.

One of the two best places I ate at this year was Pupusas Universitarias. Dinner included pinchos, skewered meat and vegetables, and the meat was of a high quality. Unfortunately, I’m told, the best meat is often exported. The second was El Patio, where I had a Honduran steak at the insistence of my host (I’m not a big beef eater). It was very good. This was obviously a trendy place with lots of non-Hondurans in the crowd, as it’s a favorite among embassy personnel and foreign business leaders. There I sampled a rosquiller, a Honduran donut that is soaked in honey and rich enough to make Krispy Kreme a low-calorie option. I’m told that rosquillers are traditionally served at Christmas in Honduran homes. At another place, with an interesting band playing way too loud in the background, we had a traditional Honduran meal of boiled yucca with a tomato sauce and topped with fried pork. My host asked if I’d ever had pork like this before. Yes, I said, down south we call it "fat back" (something po’ folk eat). My grandma use to fix it. I didn’t like it then, nor did I care much for it in Honduras. But the yucca root was filling.

Some of the places along the coast are known for their seafood, but I spent all my time inland. I had fried fish once and it was okay. All in all, I’d take the traditional Honduran meal of beans, tortillas, fruit, eggs, bad cheese, black coffee and plenty of hot sauce. As for their coffee, I love it as long as its brewed or done "cowboy style" (as we’d call it out west). I order mine café negro (black coffee). My last cup of coffee in Honduras, at the Expresso Americana in the airport, was disappointing. It was instant. I actually found several places that seemed to be "trendy" serving instant coffee. In a country that produces such rich coffee, instant coffee should be outlawed.

Upcoming will be an article on the health benefits of dark beers. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Howling Wind, Leaves, & More Honduran Pictures

The wind howls out of the southwest. Coming back from church, it felt like I was driving upstream in a river of leaves, as they tumbled down the street. This is a godsend. The city hasn’t yet picked up the leaves yet and I have haven’t finished raking them, and now most of my leaves have been blown away. And since there is a 30 acre pasture behind my backyard, to the south, I don’t have to worry about other leaves blowing in. So unless the wind changes direction and keeps up the intensity it’s currently blowing, I’ll only have to do minor clean up of leaves this week. By the way, the leaves are at least two weeks behind this year!

I’m posting a few more pictures from Honduras. I have one more roll of pictures, but doubt I’ll post them unless there is something really good. The exception is a picture of the Confucius statue (with the "Al Christos" sign behind it). Next week, I’ll have to find something else to muse about… These pictures are from San Jeromino, a neat village that is high in the mountains.

Ringing the church's bell

Mountain farming

In the Chicago Bears jacket--the principal of the school in San Jeromino.

Log Bee Hive:


Town square (the bus isn't a school bus, it is a public bus that runs from San Jeromino to Jesus de Otoro.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Honduran Politics (going to the dogs?)

Driving the main highway between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, one wonders if Honduras isn’t an overly religious country populated with Christian fundamentalist. After all, Jesus for President signs are seen, painted on rocks, throughout the countryside. When asked about the signs, I’m told that this Jesus isn’t the Son of God or a Puerto Rico baseball player, but a politician for the National Party who ran for President of Honduras several elections ago. He lost. Yet, his signs on rocks still stands along with newer signs for Pepe and Mel and a couple other minor candidates that are running for the office this year. The Honduran election occurs later this November. Pepe and Mel’s signs, I’m sure, will continue to remain visible until they finally weather away. I’m going to have to find out what kind of paint Jesus’ sign painter used and use it on the trim of my house.

If you’re thinking that Pepe and Mel and Jesus are all first names, you’re right. Actually, with Pepe and Mel, they’re nicknames. Their real names are Porfigia Lebo (I think I got that right) and Manuel Zetaya. Can you imagine what the 2004 US elections would have sounded like if the battle had been between Georgie Boy and Johnny, instead of Bush and Kerry?

Honduras allows a president to serve only one term. In Central America, being elected for a second term allows for one to assume dictatorial powers, so the constitution prohibits one from seeking a second term. I was told the constitution always prohibits the President of Congress from running for President, but that doesn’t stop Pepe, the National (or Conservative) candidate. No one could explain this to me, but then I had a hard time explaining our elections, so we came out even.
Most of the Hondurans I know are mostly apathetic about national politics. Those who vote plan to vote for Mel, the Liberal candidate, but mostly they agree that all the national politicians are crooked. As one suggested, the Nationals (Conservatives) are just a bit more crooked than the Liberals. I nodded emphatically, knowing how they feel. The Liberal Party colors are red; the National Party colors are blue. You can tell which party candidates for mayor and congress are by the colors of their posters.

I got a feeling the Nationals will win this year. Pepe is running on a plan to change the
constitution to allow the death penalty (maybe he’ll do this when he changes the constitution to allow himself be president) as a way to fight the gang violence in the cities. Of course, the Liberals too are concern about violence, but they raise legitimate concerns about the use of capital punishment. After all, this is Central America and trials are not always fair, especially when one is a member of the wrong party.

I had a couple of brushes with political fame in Honduras. A friend, the principal of the school in San Jeronimo, is running on the National Party ticket for Mayor. My other brush with Honduran political fame occurred in Tegoose (short way of saying Tegucigalpa). I was staying with a friend who lives down the road from Mel (Mel lives in a very middle class neighborhood for Honduran and certainly for American President standards). One morning, Mel’s dog (a big puppy) was out roaming the street. I had to get a picture of me with the dog, for it may become a collector’s item. If Mel wins, the dog will be the "First Dog" of Honduras. And if this happens, I may take the picture off the blog and try to sell it on Ebay.

By the way, dogs in Honduran cities (who are generally kept for protection) have a much better life than dogs in the countryside where they’re all scavengers. If Hindu’s are right, one has to have very bad karma to come back as a dog in the villages. And I can’t see Mel’s dog being much of a guard dog, however he did have guards with big guns in front of this house and the neighborhood had guards at its entrance.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Honduran Pictures

Here are some pics from my travels...

A good days catch! Not really, I borrowed these fish from a roadside fish seller. Near Lago de Yojoa.

For those tired of tortillas, there's white bread. I don't think the name carries the same meaning in Spanish as English (it's not a Spanish word in my dictionary). It's always nice to have friends who are good sports.

This kid has a toy gun shaped by a machete. I remember my dad cut my brother and I guns out of lumber--but this requires even more imagation.
Below is a woman tending a traditional stove (notice the long wood being fed into the stove.

Above is a guy cleaning up a cemetery for All Saint's Day. He's using only a machete and a hooked stick which lifts the vines so that he can cut them. I tried, helping him clean a bit, but didn't get any pictures.

Below is a picture of town of Jesus de Otoro.

I know there are at least two Auburn folks who occassionally read this blog--just wanted to let you know with the pic to the right that the Crimson Tide fan club is alive and well in Honduras.

The two girls to the left are from an orphanage. Honduras has very tough regulations about out of country adoption.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Coming Home--A Glimpse into life within a Honduran Village

Down the highway, dodging potholes, we pass yet another bicycle struggling up a hill, firewood strapped to the back. The biker cut and split the wood with the machete strapped to the top. Life’s hard here. Turning into the village, the road becomes dirt. Chickens scoot to the side, letting us pass. The roosters puff out their chest, fluffing feathers. It isn’t just a self-assured prestige. They're important to the economy; their nightly dalliance with the hens produce eggs, a staple in the diet of the people, and along with beans the main source of protein. At the corner, a few men lean against the wall of a pulperia, cowboy hats tipped back, watching the day pass. I wave. "Hola," they mumble. A malnourished dog darts across the street, stopping to lick the salt off a discarded wrapper of chips. Time slows down here; even slower than the bus negotiating puddles and around an oxen-pulled cart hauling adobe blocks.

Dark clouds and light drizzle slows life even more. It’s cool in the mountains, but never cold. Smoke rises from the stovepipes, only to lay low, forming a blanket over the town. I imagine women inside, patting out tortillas while tending the stove. The long split pieces of wood are gradually fed into the abode firebox. A pot of beans boil while tortillas bake on the hot metal above the coals. Their evening meal of beans and tortillas will be supplemented with a few eggs, some crumbled cheese, fresh bananas and strong coffee.

We pass the park. Schoolboys play soccer, and a few kids shoot basketball, paying little attention to the dampness. We turn off the main road and pull up to the Hotel Central Otoreno where we get out. We’re back. The first thing I notice is that there is now a railing around the balcony. Last year, a couple of us got some rope and made a railing to reduce the risk of falling off the top floor. We’re assigned rooms and I haul my backpack up to the second floor, dropping it into my room. I look around. There are two beds and a chair in the main room. The TV on the wall is another surprise. It wasn't there last year. The bathroom consists of a toilet, trash can (for toilet paper-the Honduran plumbing system doesn’t handle paper), a cold water only sink and a shower. I’m surprised to see they’ve attached an electric heater showerhead. Upon closer examination, I notice the ground wire has been snipped off and the hot wires are just twisted together and taped, dangling above the shower. Obviously, there are no electrical inspectors in these parts.

I take off my watch. It’s no longer needed. Then I head outside. Walking through the town, I visit familiar sites. The old church by the square is open. A machete, secured in a fancy sheath, lies next to the doorsill as a reminder that this is a sanctuary. I peek in and see the back of a lone man kneeling in prayer under the gaze of a rather dark-skinned Jesus who hangs on the cross. Nothing has changed. I stop in the hardware store and surprise Ricardo. He tells me he’s been practicing and challenges me in chess. Another customer comes in and he must return to work. We’ll meet later. I head down to the park and shoot a few hoops with the kids. I teach them useful techniques with corresponding English words, like "break" "drive," and "pick." Their laugher is contagious. Despite the mud and trash and poverty, I’m still at home.