Confessions Of An Oil Change Initiate

Confessions Of An Oil Change Initiate

Think of something you have never done, actually never dreamed of doing – not some holiday antic, adventurous get-away, frivolous whim kind of thing.  No, think of something daunting, formidable, down-right intimidating.

Got it?

Where to begin?  Well, let’s eliminate asking for help right at the start.  No matter what you’ve chosen not to do for a lifetime, it is probably a fairly regular undertaking for all sorts of people.  Regular folks up and down the street have performed whatever task it is you have at hand, finding it laughably simple and hardly worth mentioning.

When I was younger and willing to put gasoline in my mouth, I had to siphon gas from one car into another.  By “had to”, I mean had better before I was caught having driven far further than I was allowed to drive.  It is possible that I did not yet have my license to drive.  It is pretty certain that I did not have my license to drive. So, immediate action had to be taken.

Not having siphoned before, and in the company of one of my lower companions who made a practice of siphoning at every opportunity, I looked to him for help.  He looked at me with wonder and contempt.

“Just suck until the gas starts to flow, then put the hose in the other tank.”

I could do suction, it turned out, but the transfer turned out to be more awkward than my former friend had indicated.  In any case, experienced thus in the unexpected art of gargling gasoline, it was a far easier job the next time, and the times after that.  No need to go into the circumstances requiring subsequent applications of this practice.

I’m on my own these days, not that I don’t have friends, but having seen the catalog of my incompetence on a pal’s face, I have learned not to broadcast the full range of skills never acquired.  Which is a shame, because the only recourse then is to dig up one of the instructional videos on YouTube, and that’s really the subject of today’s sermon.

Those more familiar with the range of expertise appearing on these how-to lessons are surely more wary than I was, and although no imbibing of gasoline took place, let’s just say that my first attempt to change the oil in my riding mower turned out to be unfortunate.

Before I detail the deceptions these so-called experts practiced upon me and the garage floor, I do want to confess that in my blessedly short career aboard a guided missile destroyer in the service of the US Navy, I was a Machinist’s Mate Third Class. I had gone through Basic Propulsion and Engineering, Advanced Propulsion and Engineering, Thermodynamics, and had begun instruction in the maintenance of nuclear reactors when I flunked a vision test and was assigned to the USS Sellers, DDG 11, waiting for me in Charleston, South Carolina.  Despite hours spent understanding the concepts behind the operation of steam-powered engines, I had not actually seen one.

What to do?  Let me remind you that this vessel carried guided missiles.  I was pretty sure the ship, the Navy, and the civilized world would not be well served by any inadvertent jumbling I did with super-heated steam under pressure, so I volunteered for every vile duty nobody else wanted to take on.  I scraped paint, pumped bilges, stood watch every night, and avoided the engine room throughout my tour.  Gratefully discharged, I vowed never to put myself in a position in which my lack of experience could do damage to unsuspecting things and people.

And then … we moved to southern Oregon, settled into country life, and inevitably found that if I tried to mow our acreage by hand, my life in retirement would be nasty, brutish, and short.  We found a local hardware store that carried all the power tools and vehicles we needed to maintain the place, listened carefully to the instructions given us by the cheerful sales folks, tucked the manuals into folders near the machines, bought the necessary fluids, and began our new lives confident in our ability to keep the place tidy.

The first year passed uneventfully, but in the normal cycle of maintenance, the time came to change the oil in the Husqvarna riding mower, by now my favorite possession and mode of transport.  I stopped back at the hardware store, checked in with the cheerful salesman that  sold me the mower, and, prepared for ritual shaming, asked how the process should be carried out.  Without a single disparaging glance, the guy got right to it, demonstrating on one of the floor models.  Zip, zap, zoom, caps were pulled, plugs were pulled, filters slid, and the job was done.

Again, theoretically.

Back home, I rehearsed the procedure, assembled all the devices I thought necessary, attached the hose leading to the collecting pan,and pulled the first plug.


I love my machine and I love my garage; I wanted no harm to come to either.  I did what any incompetent would do, I went to YouTube.  Thirty or forty videos appeared as possible modes of instruction.  Overwhelming.  Not knowing any better, I picked one with the word “easy” in the title.  And that’s when I discovered what I should have known from every other life experience:

People who know how to do what you need to know how to do assume that any sentient creature understands the basic principles that surely need not be articulated.

I saw my first expert reach below the engine, twist something, pull something, then chortle with pleasure at the ease with which his container was neatly filling with used oil.  The next three experts were equally off-handed in starting the flow of used oil into the container.

These experts, by the way, are all the same guy.  They come from different parts of the country, speak with different accents, but aside from that, they all approach this sort of lesson with the same smarmy self-satisfaction.

“I can do this in my sleep!  What’s your problem?”

My problem was that, no matter how many videos I searched, one key piece of information eluded me.  I understood the whole schmeer, from the cleansing of the various points of intake to the final thoughtful disposal of the oil.  What I did not understand was how to twist, push, and pull the plug at the bottom of the oil tank so that the well-directed flow of used oil landed in my oil pan.

I should have driven back out to the hardware store, admitted my failings, and watched the human perform the trick I could not master.

What I did was to keep at it for about an hour until I twisted the plug just a bit too far.

I had never knelt in a pool of used oil until today.  It’s not an experience I want to repeat, and whatever skills I acquired in the mopping up of the spill I will be happy to forget.  My neatly stacked implements disappeared first, then the manuals lying near at hand.  I watched the tide reach my knees and despaired.

Here’s a digression that came immediately to mind in that moment.  My favorite baseball broadcaster as a kid was Red Barber, who worked the Dodger and then the Yankee games.  He had a sweet southern accent and a gift for colorful metaphor, and, he later revealed in an interview that he never swore, under any circumstance.  His thinking was that he feared that in a moment of excitement, he might let an expletive fly.  Today, announcers might not be so punctilious, but Barber was, and given the Mazerowski home run in 1960, I’m sure we were both glad he was.

I’m not as routinely careful, but I get the idea, and happily did not let loose when the oil hit the garage floor.  The garage and driveway share a fence with the neighbors’riding arena; I never know who is likely to be out there.  Fortunately, no bodily functions or other vulgarisms were spewed at the moment of crisis, and for that small moment of grace, I am grateful.

Ah, but I  am left with the certainty that help is not always at hand, and I’d better get myself caught up as quickly as I can before I have to lubricate the chain on my chainsaw.




Blackberries – Caught In A Bad Romance

Blackberries – Caught In  A Bad Romance

I set out to write about the distinction between a small farm, which is what I like to call our place, and what is simply a home adjacent to acres of landscaping that demand attention, come rain or come shine.

In defense of the designation as farm is the observation that I can look out of any window and see meadows and fields; horses move into the picture on a regular basis, and leave prodigious piles of processed grazing in our meadow.  My day often begins with grabbing a pitchfork (see!) and pitching manure into a cart before the dog claim the delicacies for their own.  I have a riding mower that I call a tractor, a limb trimmer, and a chain saw, and, if I could call them to testify, our four dogs have stated that they prefer to be called a herd rather than a pack.

Sounds sort of farmish.

But, in all candor, I thought, we don’t actually raise anything, and farms are pretty much all about actually bringing things into being,  then seeing to the tending, cultivating, shearing, milking, harvesting and such.

We have done some cultivating, tending, and harvesting, but in a recreational, isn’t-southern Oregon-fabulous kind of way, so not much support for the farm tag there.  It’s awkward because I had lovely signs made up before we moved to Oregon featuring the silhouette of a border collie above the property’s presumptive name – Storybook Farm.

Head down, I prepared to order a more restrained version of the original concept; perhaps something like “Storybook Place With A Long Unpaved Driveway” .  Depressed, I sank a bit lower and noticed a new scar on my calf (lower leg, not Holstein).  It had gone unobserved because both legs, both arms, and most of my clothing have been sliced by blackberry thorns, and the profound and extremely painful slicing has become so common, so expected, in the ordinary course of a day that it no longer registers as an outrage.

I say scar, and the reader imagines a thin line of slightly reddened mark, perhaps the sort of trace left by a fine point pen..

Au contraire.

Oregon summers are hot, so I wore shorts to a picnic last week, thinking nothing of the marred flesh I exposed.  My host pointed to a leg asking what I had done to myself, fearing, I think, that self-mutilation had accompanied me into retirement.  Not understanding his concern, I shrugged uncertainly.  He pointed and said, “Looks like you got trapped with a bobcat in a phone booth.”

Close enough.

Blackberry vines grow overnight, while we sleep, curling and coiling, shooting green runners from otherwise innocent trees and shrubs, pushing their way into spaces I had thought unassailable.  Left unwatched, they join other tendrils, forming walls of thorn.  I had thought the forest of thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty was simply fairy tale exaggeration; not so.  If Beauty (that can’t be her name, can it?) stretched out anywhere on this property, she would be thorned in by sunset.

Yeah.  It’s impressive.

Ah, but it’s also testimony to the fact that we DO raise a crop here on this farm.  Yep, I manage acres of blackberry incursion on a daily basis.  Not farm enough for you?  Listen, Cows are milked twice a day.  Twice a day?  Hah!  I’m out there hours at a time, cutting back pulsing waves of blackberry vines. Why don’t I just plant them where I want them, you ask.  They plant themselves, and their roots descend to the what the agronomists at Oregon State (Go, Beavers!) call the layer below the rigid lithosphere, a zone of asphalt-like consistency called the Asthenosphere.

Asphalt like, and they sink in their botanical fangs so deep that mortal efforts cannot uproot them.

But, and this is the essential point, the blackberries themselves are delicious, decidedly more delicious than berries ordinary folks find at even the most rigorously fresh of fresh fruit stands.  We don’t have them for long; when we water the cultivated bushes in a warm summer such as the last few, we can expect the first really tasty berries to emerge in the final weeks of July.  By the end of August, we’re making do with berries that are less full and less sweet.

Picking blackberries is not for the faint of heart, although all four of the dogs have developed methods of plucking the low hanging fruit.  The youngest dog routinely ends up with a train of thorns caught in his feathery tail.  His mother, a more cautious harvester, however, stands on what for a dog must be tip-toe, snipping the fattest berries slowly and with a delicacy she does not exhibit in any other endeavor.

Tastes differ, and Mary often returns from a berry harvest with berries that are smaller, more firm, and likely to be less sweet.  I, the more discerning picker, look for the fattest, berries that are not simply black, but a deep ebony, with a slight shine near the stem.  In fact, my berries gleam.

Mary loves to see her berries end up in cobblers and tarts, where the zesty tang of the berry compliments the sweetness of the encompassing goop. Goop is a word we farm people use to describe the stuff that ends up in cobblers and tarts, besides the berries, peaches, or apples.  I will admit that hers are the superior accompanying berries.

Mine stand by themselves.

I eat the berries singly, holding each one to the light, admiring the sheen, anticipating the burst of flavor I am about to enjoy.  The first two go quickly; the rest are savored.  From my point of view, the fatter the berry the better, although that preference has cost me more than one white t shirt as a grotesquely bulging berry explodes in my fingers.  Tastes pretty good in clean up, but will not come out in the wash.

The days are shortening now, and it’s almost time for my least favorite task of the year.  In October, I’ll put on my Hasmat gear, grab the limb trimmer, and try to bring the most aggressively over-grown banks of thorns back from wild sovereignty of our fields.  Last year I thought a standard string trimmer would do the job, but the diabolical runners tangle themselves in the head of the trimmer before I can trim the first bush.  So this year I’m breaking out the big gun, a twelve pound trimming blade that cuts through tree limbs.


That done, my thoughts turn to the twelve-foot ladder leaning against an apple tree that needs some major surgery, then to the fertilizer, then to the rototiller.

Just another year at Storybook Farm.




Dear Readers – Why I Won’t Be Ranting About Politics

Dear Readers – Why I Won’t Be Ranting About Politics

Time to shift the tone.  From this point on, I intend to write in a lighter mode, playful at times, reflective perhaps, but avoiding rabid partisanship.

We have a ton of responsible journalists covering every topic I might take on, with much more perspective than I  have, caught as I am in my own world view and political biases.  They write well and are accountable for what they write.

It all comes down to this:  I’m just one more amateur assuming the mantle of punditry.  That’s right, “punditry” – go ahead, look it up.

I subscribe to The Nation, The Washington Post, and Time Magazine and watch MSNBC far more frequently than is good for me.  My capacity for outrage remains unlimited, but there’s no need for me to be the caretaker of public opinion.  Joe Klein’s columns pretty much cover everything that I’ve been thinking with much more balanced insight.

And, it’s probably not great for me to wax apoplectic day after day.  I was no cover boy before I started this blog, but bulging eyes and pulsing veins indicate a serious over-involvement in current affairs.  I’m down to two cups of half-caff a day, I eat a Paleo diet, and volunteer for Ashland Hospice.

Sounds healthy, yes?

Watch this space for flights of whimsy and low-key ruminations, which, by the way, is a word that actually derives from the advantage that ruminants have in fermenting plant-based foods in a specialized stomach, essentially advertising that I’ll be chewing over some things in the weeks ahead.

Enough.  Check in next time.

Vote for Hillary.






Just Listen

Just Listen

She had to see before she could hear.

Alison Guernsey is a teacher in a K-8 school in which numbers of kids simply stopped coming to school, some for considerable lengths of time.  Guernsey was saddened by the serial absences and the impact they had on her classroom and on the school.  Not surprisingly, she felt she had failed, or the system had failed, or the world had failed; she was overwhelmed by a problem she could not conceptualize.

She was puzzled.  Guernsey knew her students were happy at school; they had friendships that were disrupted by absence, and they missed significant special events.  Their absence did not make sense.  Finally, summoning her courage, Alison Guernsey went to her students’ homes to see if she could do anything to turn the situation around.  She persisted in asking the same questions and listening carefully, sticking with her visits long enough to build trust with her kids and their parents.

She found out that the children she taught often had no clean clothes.

More than 90% of the children in the David Weir Preparatory Academy, in Fairflield, California, east of San Francisco, are on the free and reduced lunch programs.  Parents described the choices they had to make on a monthly basis, all that had to be sacrificed in order to meet the rent or pay for medicine.  Some reported that they had a washer and dryer, but their electricity had been turned off for  weeks at a time.  Guernsey knew that she saw disadvantaged children every day, but saw more as she asked and asked again.  Many of the children were transient, living in motels week to week; others lived in cars.  Parents did the wash when they could, but were embarrassed to send a child to school in dirty clothing, and children were mortified to be seen in dirty clothing.

Rather than throw up her hands in frustration, Guernsey returned to her school and installed a washing machine and dryer; she provided detergent, laundry bags, and fabric softener.  Children who had missed many school days were told their clothes would be washed while they were in class.  Volunteers arrived every day to help do the laundry.  Alison Guernsey’s hope was that this initiative might help attendance a bit; in the first month, attendance was up by 90%.

The success of the program brought the interest of Whirlpool, which now supports a program called Care Counts, providing washers and dryers to schools.  In the first year, Whirlpool assisted seventeen schools in two districts, hiking their attendance by 93%; the program is expanding to meet the needs of schools in other regions.

Alison Guernsey’s story is inspiring, and Whirlpool’s sponsorship is encouraging, but what struck me as most important about the story was that Alison Guernsey was willing to listen.  She is a remarkable teacher, fully invested in the lives of the children she teaches, and she stepped into those lives.  She put aside her disappointment and frustration, and sat with parents who had never been asked what their children were going through.

Asking matters.  Listening matters.  Most of us are told what we need, what we think, what we should do.  We are rarely asked … anything.  Those of us sitting at a table using a computer are the lucky ones; if we live our lives feeling unseen, imagine the lives of those we cannot see.

Alison Guernsey asked and listened, but first she had to see, and she saw what most of don’t.

Homeless people are the fastest growing demographic in this country.  Almost fifty million people in the U.S. live below the poverty level, although it is difficult to collect accurate statistics on a population in motion and unlikely to appear in an ordinary head count.  One child in five lives below the poverty line.  Estimates put the number of homeless children at about three million, again recognizing that figures are as unstable as the population.  In addition to those homeless in the company of a parent or relative, twenty-five percent of children in foster care end up homeless.  Almost half of the homeless population is under the age of eighteen.  In addition, sixteen million children live in situations in which access to food is precarious.  Just to up the stakes a bit, in some studies it has been found that homeless children experience developmental delay and suffer from depression and anxiety.

So, when teachers, people, like Alison Guernsey step out of the sheltered world, look hard at the children they meet, ask authentic questions, and listen, they help us see children who need help.

The rest is up to us.




Can’t Every Day Be Halloween?

Can’t Every Day Be Halloween?

I know.  Halloween is still a month away, despite the plethora of pumpkin based products now chillingly displayed at our local Trader Joe’s.  There are currently thirty-five pumpkin items on the shelf this minute – pumpkin soap, pumpkin cream cheese muffins, pumpkin croissants, pumpkin dog treats, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin butter) now chillingly displayed at our local Trader Joe’s

In retail world, of course, shelves have to be stocked, ads have to appear, inventory has to move, and all of that takes preparation and time, but still – Back-To-School in July?  The graduation cards have hardly been mailed, brides are still on honeymoons,  are still busting out all over.  School begins, notebooks and lunch boxes go on deep discount, and Halloween costumes hit the racks.

My kids have moved on to family and career, but memory, my wife might say, trauma, persists.  We weren’t among the most ambitious or obsessive costumers, but we did encourage extensive conversations about costume and assiduously began the gathering of the necessary glitter, fur, fangs, mermaid tails, capes, more fangs, blood, pitchforks, halos, plumbing gear (Mario), shells (Ninja Turtles), hair( Princess Leia) and , inevitably, swords, nunchucks, bazookas, and throwing stars.

No problem there.

The problem that emerged each October as surely as night follows day was in the ever-shifting “final” choice of costume, a rolling tide of crises that flowed but never ebbed, sparked by school parades, tricking and treating at the mall, tricking and treating on main street, and the final, authentic tricking and treating on All Hallow’s Eve.

What’s a kid to do?  Wear the SAME costume on each outing?

For the first furious years, we panicked, stonewalled, improvised, and improvised.  As the annual autumnal meltdowns became as familiar as the scent of milk left too long in the lunchbox, we learned to anticipate change, maintaining unflappable equanimity even as Aladdin morphed into Batman.

How hard is it to make a cowl and find black pajamas?  Drag another cape from the cupboard.

Distance brings, well,distance, and now, without kids amping up in early September, the season now seems smaller, shrunken.  We’re growing pumpkins,so there’s that, and I did buy the croissants and pumpkin chowder. Still, it’s almost October.

I’m not a slave to tradition, and I certainly understand the need to grow beyond the conventions of years gone by.  Just because I have an inflatable vampire stored in the garage, just because the vampire is an Inflatable Tigger with fangs and a cape, just because it’s awesome, no need to drag it out this year.  We’re well off the beaten path; anyone who shows up in a mask on Halloween will end up doing ten-to-life in Folsom.  Passing cars can’t even see the house, much less the inflated Tiger.

Yeah.  So.  Tigger in a box.  Just sitting there, month after month.

It’s not just that he’s Tigger; he’s got a goofy not-very-menacing grin and a roguishly insouciant tousled cape.  And fangs. He’s inflated, but not heavy, so he wobbles in the best of circumstances and tips sideways when the wind blows, which actually makes him slightly disturbing, as he appears to be skulking, as much as anything large black and orange can skulk.

My wife is a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, to borrow a phrase from Salinger, possessing the quality I both admire and see as a necessary corrective to my own decidedly non-level decision-making.  She’s not wrong, (my daughter reminds me that’s not the same as saying she’s right) in thinking a tiger on the porch is unseemly in this country setting.  She’s also a breathtakingly compassionate girl, recognizing that I don’t handle the empty nest all that well around holidays, pretty much closing her eyes and ignoring the bobbing inflatable unless it bobs into her path, at which point she swats it aside without rancor.

Compromise is good, and I’m able to contain myself until the middle of October; that’s thoroughly reasonable.  On October 15, however, sunrise will reveal a tiger, once bitten, holding down the porch until all contending spirits have been laid to rest.






The last of the really good pears dropped last night.

Over the last few weeks I have gone into the orchard early each morning with the dogs; the idea was that they could romp, fetch, and do canine stuff, while I gathered the morning’s shakedown.  My mistake was in thinking pears would be of little interest to large healthy border collies.  They have discovered , however, that these pears are more than satisfactory as a morning snack.

I’m a quick study; I worked out a set of distractions to keep them at bay while I scoop up the best, leaving the bruised ones on the ground for enterprising hounds.  I head out with my collecting bag in one hand and their favorite toy in the other.  The two youngest have lots of competitive energy and race away when I toss the thing as far as I can.  The oldest dog lumbers behind, unlikely to win the chase unless the two bouncier dog knock the thing sideways, into her paws.  Our most ambitious eater gives me a grudging step or two then turns to snuffling up the fattest pear under the tree.

I’ve been able to cram as many as twenty pears into the bag before all four dogs assemble back at the tree.  The greenest of the large pears will go in the fridge; I’ll split a few of the overly ripe ones with the eager quartet and take the rest to town where I’ll meet with a group of friends.  I can’t give away zucchini or squash, but the pears are welcomed.  One wag likes to say I’ve come pre-peared or re-peared; brevity may be the soul of wit, but even brevity doesn’t offer much comfort after a week or so of that.

For years, one of the treats than arrived in the holiday season was the heavy cardboard box of pears, picked and packaged by Harry and David.  We still have boxes sent to us thirty years ago; our Christmas decorations are stacked in boxes of various size, tucked in the nifty dividers and wrapped in the green tissue that once held the pears.  The boxes still look great.

The pears were great too, gigantic and sweet.  We’d make them last from Thanksgiving until New Years, sharing a pear among two or three of us.  These were Royal Riviera Pears, a variety grown almost exclusively in southern Oregon, where warm days and cool nights persist through a long growing season.  Harry and David arrived in Medford, Oregon in the 1920’s with newly earned degrees in agriculture from Cornell.  The Royal Riviera was selected as the pear most likely to win a spot in the lucrative fruit trade in Europe, so most of their orchards along Bear Creek were heavy with Royal Rivieras to be picked, kept in cool houses, packed, and sent to Europe.  After the Great Depression, Harry and David shifted their efforts to selling pears inside the United States.  Thank you, friends and relatives for helping them make their enterprise a success.

Warm days and cool nights sounded pretty good to us, too, so when we hunted for a retirement home, we returned to Ashland, Oregon, just south of Medford, hoping to find someplace with enough space to give our beasts room to run.  At the end of a long day of open houses, we were directed to a property halfway between Ashland and Medford, and found ourselves on a long dirt and stone driveway, pine trees on one side and blackberry draped ranch fencing on the other.  Before the drive curved toward the house, we knew we were home, and home happened to be in the middle of orchards watered by Bear Creek.

We hadn’t expected pears; in our first year, our small orchard hadn’t been watered regularly, and the fruit trees produced nothing worth eating.  During the winter, we leveled the ground between the trees , and this orchard is mostly ground, so that a large space could be used as a dog sport arena.  The two apple trees stood at the southern end, the plum tree in a northern corner.  One smaller pear tree and another apple tree were at the north end, and the larger pear tree was alone on the western edge.  We filled the arena with packed, aged mulch, and diverted water from another field and enjoyed giving the dogs a large useful area in the relatively wet winter.

Other repairs occupied our energy through the spring, and part of the meadow was reclaimed so that the dogs could run on grass in the summer.  Without any fanfare, the orchard budded and flowered extravagantly, and by the end of July, we were overwhelmed with fruit, including a bumper crop of pears.

Our pears are Williams pears, also known as Bartlett pears.  I won’t go into the details of the story by which Enoch Bartlett named the variety after himself, even though he had harvested pears brought from England, known there as Williams Good Christian pears. The description of the Williams pear on the USA Pears website will suffice in allowing the reader to recognize the variety in any display:

“The pear exhibits a pyriform “pear shape,” with a rounded bell on the bottom half of the fruit, and then a definite shoulder with a smaller neck or stem end.  Williams are aromatic pears, and have what many consider the definitive “pear flavor”.”

Well and good, but what cannot be completely described is the difference between the pears found on a shelf, or, to be completely frank, in a cardboard box, and the pears I swipe from the dogs in the morning.  OK, they aren’t as symmetrically perfect as the commercial versions, and they are often a bit scarred from falling on the packed mulch.  Some are smaller, and some are huge; most are yellow, but a few fall green.

I haven’t taken any from the fridge yet; we have had a steady supply of new pears throughout the week.  I have four yellow pears on the window sill.  Actually three, as I am eating one now in order to bring the experience more clearly to mind.  I start with the neck, near the stem, often the most crisp area of the pear.  The perfect pear delivers a crunch in the first bite, then increasing sweetness and juice as the consumer gets close to the core.  Whereas I am not fond of the skin of the Royal Riviera, I much prefer eating our pears by hand, rarely slicing the skin away.  There is no rough or particulate aspect to the skin; it fuses with the flesh without bringing attention to itself.

Today is the first day of autumn, and most of the Riviera and Anjou pears have been harvested in the commercial orchards that surround us; the Bosc are still on the trees for a few more days.  We know the harvest is near when large crates are stacked at the edge of the orchards and twelve-foot ladders lean against the trees.  Harry and David have been hiring help throughout the summer, preparing the baskets and displays that will feature the pears as they leave cold storage and meet the distinctive brown cardboard box.  Operators are standing by for your call, ready to take a credit card and assure you the pears will arrive by Halloween, or Thanksgiving.

We have asked our friends and relations to consider sending grapefruit from Texas if they are moved to gift us at holiday time; it’s hard to admit that we’ve become pear snobs.

On the other hand, once you have pulled yellow Williams from the tree, the world never looks quite the same.  That is certainly true for our youngest dog, also the tallest.  I found him on his hind legs, yanking a beauty from the tree all by himself.  His taste is excellent; I had been waiting a week for that pear to ripen.




Not Ready To Say Goodnight

I can see Jinx lying on the patio.  She hasn’t moved in minutes.  No flicking of her ears, no stretching to get a bit more sunshine. She has her back to the doorway, lying still.  I can hear the other dogs wrestling on the lawn.

Please, not today.

Jinx is fourteen, pretty spry really, eager to play the games we’ve played for years.  Her appetite remains healthy although she can’t handle some snacks easily; she’s learned to drop a hard biscuit to the floor and nibble up the pieces.She’s a border collie, beautiful; she is mostly black, with a white collar and blaze and a luxurious spray of thick white fur on her chest.  Her forelegs are speckled, paws mostly white.  Her coat is still shiny and full;  her eyes clear, although she doesn’t see very well these days.  Her adolescent grandson bounces unpredictably, startling her if he comes from the left or the right. He tries to give her the space she needs, but forgets, bounces too close, and earns a sharp barking rebuke.

She has a single dot at the corner of her mouth.  Marilyn Monroe.

We took her to a sheep ranch when she was young, just to see what instincts might kick in.  The other dogs were happy to bump, nip, and prod, going all out to get the sheep into compliance.  Jinx placed a thin stick in her mouth and rounded up a pair of stubborn sheep, keeping the stick in place to prevent herself from nipping.  From that moment on, every game has started with Jinx finding a stick before the action begins.  Sometimes she’s out of luck and resorts to taking a long stalk or a leaf as a substitute, but she’ll shake it away when she finds the real thing.

As a pup and as a young dog, Jinx was, well, needy.  She came by it honestly; her mother was a relentless love hound.  Whereas our lumpy blue merle simply lays his wide head on my knee and looks up imploringly, Jinx is a nudger.  She’ll butt my hand until I relent, no matter what I happen to be doing or carrying.

She does that a little less these days, though she does love to have her snout rubbed gently.

She sleeps hard.  At night she’s up on the bed, although she needs help in getting on board; it’s hard on her when she has to get down in the middle of the night and can’t pull herself back up.  During the day, she finds a patch of sun, often on the porch outside the den.  The door to the kitchen is around the corner, and the other dogs find their way there quickly when called.  Jinx doesn’t hear us, or she’s too deeply asleep.  She rouses when we step outside, yell around the corner, and clap loudly.

I’m happier when I can see Jinx.  On the few occasions when she has wandered off into the pasture or the orchard without the rest of the gang, I’ve had to go looking when the yelling and clapping has failed.  I don’t realize I’ve been holding my breath until I find her lying near the pear trees.

“If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.”

I’m not ready; it all comes down to that.  I still grieve the dogs we’ve lost, each one with a particular pain.  Some of them slowed, weakened, lingered, and gave out.  One died in my daughter’s arm; one died in mine.  Two died too soon.

I know that my thread is as likely to fray as Jinx’s, and we each have whatever days we have.  I find as many ways as I can to honor her each day and try to slow myself down as I rub the velvet fur above her eyebrows.  She closes her eyes and takes a long slow breath.  So do I. I say goodnight and stroke her head slowly as I leave her.

Please, not tonight.



Repurposing – Confessions of a Thrift Shopper

Repurposing – Confessions of a Thrift Shopper

I like to think of myself as a repurposer, and to some extent I certainly am, in that I sit at the computer this afternoon wearing shirt, shorts, and shoes that some discerning shopper bought brand new.  I won’t go into the labels I’m sporting today, but, please, assume my repurposing hits the top of the line in every area of apparel.

It happens that the clothing I am wearing today belong in the category, “like new”; I can only imagine some star-crossed shopper arriving home with parcels, looking at the crisp new clothing in bright boxes tied with ribbons and immediately snipping the labels and dropping everything off at a local charity, swept away by pangs of remorse in buying articles of such high quality when former teachers, say, walk the streets without impressively logo-ed sportswear.

Actually, when it comes to men’s clothing, there are two significant factors that allow me particularly enviable choice in almost any thrift store of quality.  The first is obvious; women live longer than men, and in some cases, marry an older spouse, whose elegant wardrobe is packed up regretfully by a widow wanting someone else to “have nice things.”  Thank you very much.  The second turns an unappreciated condition into an advantage; I am short and relatively small, thereby not competing with the larger and extra-larger thrifters.  There are lots of extra-large thrifters.

There are some complications,however, that arise from a peculiarity in the physique of the average American male, as described by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  The average man is about 5′ 9″ tall, weighs 195 pounds, and has a circumference of almost 40 inches at the waist.  So, you would think that average man buys trousers with a 40 inch waist, or, perhaps hoping for sudden girth reduction or simply out of vanity, perhaps a size 38.  Well, they don’t; 55% of them buy trousers with a 34 inch waist.  Some brands do run  a bit large, but in most instances some of those  40 inches of midriff hang over the belt.  In this observation, I cite the findings of a company that checks the sizes and body types of a sample made up of 400,000 men.  When questioned, men admitted that they continued to buy the size they thought of as their size (oh, memory is sweet!) because they could not admit that time has taken its toll.

Inevitably, as it must to all men, the realization of time’s cruel ravage sinks in, once beloved trousers now flare disturbingly, and another bundle arrives at the Hospice Thrift Shop, dry cleaned and “like new”.  The same phenomenon affects other articles of clothing as well; only hats seem to be immune to the general widening of a fella over the years.  Shirts end up in my grasp, in every hue and texture, and sweaters knit from the fleece of lambs fed only clover.  Overcoats, denim jackets, t-shirts heavy with the thickest cotton, foul-weather gear, stadium parkas, team jerseys – the bounty of the world thoughtfully displayed for my shopping pleasure.

I also confess to certain prejudices about clothing and other articles that end up in my repurposful sights.  Quality is eternal.  I often seek vintage clothing of quality because the materials are superior and because the crafting of the article is exquisite.  I travel with a small suitcase, green canvas and leather, because I love the heft of the thing and the soft play of handcrafted leather as I reach for the artfully designed handles.  I lather each morning with a shaving brush that was made in  Germany and likely belonged to a Prussian Junker who delicately, but firmly, coaxed the badger into giving up its bristle.  I sleep at night under a striped woolen blanket, a blanket with a few moth holes, to be sure, but an authentic blanket from the Hudson Bay Company, a striking artifact in full daylight, each stripe still vivid – green stripe, red stripe, yellow stripe, and indigo against a background made of sunshine and snow.

I am not alone in  my appreciation of quality.  Readers will recall the moment at which the mercurial Daisy is swept into unanticipated depths of feeling about Jay Gatsby.  He has shown her his shirts; she weeps.  “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”

We know how Gatsby ends.  It’s not a happy ending.  But those shirts… don’t we think they were stuffed in a bag and left in a drop-off  bin somewhere on the North Shore of Long Island?  Gatsby’s shirts, Amory Blaine’s white flannel trousers, Bertie Wooster’s Banjolele, Babar King of the Elephant’s green suit – these are the Holy Grail of thrifters repurposers.

Pawn shops, storage units, unclaimed baggage, each can provide the occasional whiff of discovery, but the thrift stores that operates to support a cause worth supporting have brought me countless hours of delight and more curios than a single home can hold.

And, to complete the cycle, I make room for the next purchases by donating something from the last.  Symbiotic partners, my Hospice Unique Boutique and I, living examples of give and take, each the more complete for the gift of the other.

Well, it’s Wednesday, 20% off day.  The game is afoot!



The Culture War is Getting Darker – Is Compromise Possible?

The Culture War is Getting Darker – Is Compromise Possible?

It’s one thing when Steve Bannon, Roger Ailes, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Breitbart, and Alex Jones compare the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the coming of the apocalypse, the establishment of Satanic government, the end of civilization as we know it, but it is quite another thing when elected officials echo Stone’s prediction that there might be “a bloodbath”.

Yesterday, Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky,  (still a state as I understand it) spoke to the Value Voters Conference in Washington, D.C.  In what has been described as “off the cuff remarks”, Bevin reminded his listeners that the “blood of patriots” has to be spilled as well as the “blood of tyrants”.  Noting with sadness that it might be his own children who have to bleed and die in order to keep society from degrading farther.

“It’s a slippery slope. First, we’re killing children, then it’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ now it’s this gender-bending kind of ‘don’t be a bigot,’ ‘don’t be unreasonable,’ ‘don’t be unenlightened, heaven forbid,’ ‘just keep your mouth shut.’”

A Clinton election, the governor suggested, would pull the nation so far down the slope that only violent opposition could turn the nation back to the values celebrated in the group he addressed.

“Whose blood will be shed?” Bevin asked. “It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and our indifference, have given away. Don’t let it happen.”

If there were to be a conversation among us all, although the opportunity for real dialogue appears to have passed, we might identify the principles that separate us, recognizing that we will disagree, that some convictions are bone deep and unshakable.  At the start, we’d use the same words for what we hold most important – freedom, conscience, decency, honesty, love, family, nation.

And then … the two competing cultures would face the difficult task of living in the company of others whose beliefs are not our own.  As I write that sentence, I am aware that I am painfully uncomfortable with the notion that my country might endorse to some degree convictions about gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender people, convictions about the centrality of Christian faith, convictions about caring for the poor and homeless, convictions about public health, convictions about welcoming immigrants and those seeking asylum, convictions about the exclusive use of English, convictions about the use of public land, convictions about the regulation of industry and commerce, convictions about the environment … that I find horrifying.
And then … I realize that the governor of Kentucky speaks for those, and they are many, who believe that this election may be the last election.  As America has become more diverse in almost every way, and as modernity pulls young people into beliefs not held by the previous generations, and as we are demographically not our grandparent’s America, the chances of a conservative candidate defeating the forces of change grow more narrow by the year.
For those of us who are Democrats, or liberals, or radicals, that is a comforting thought.  For those who are not, it is terrifying.
The language of extremity and the strength of conviction that these are end-times for  conservatism activates a kind of populist reaction that has been ugly in part and desperate as well.  Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of the word “deplorable” fits some of the mean-spirited nativism and racism that has been attracted to the Trump campaign, but ordinary people, whose views are not my own, are caught in the maelstrom as well.

Shot With Sugar Through and Through

Shot With Sugar Through and Through

Once again, and with regularity that is not comforting at all, I was again made aware of how much the culture has changed without my permission and how far my experience of the world is from that of my kids. Time’s Winged Chariot seems to have added rocket boosters.

What set off this dark reverie?

My wife spooned through a bowl of Wheaties this morning, not an alarming event or particularly noteworthy, except that the thought that came unbidden was, of course, “Breakfast of Champions”.  It struck me that I have no idea whether that phrase is still used in advertising campaigns; do my kids have the same automatic familiarity with the tag line that I do?  Can they sing the Wheaties song?

“Have you tried Wheaties?

They’re whole wheat with all the bran.

Won’t you try Wheaties?

For wheat is the best food of man.”

General Mills has been picturing outstanding athletes on its Wheaties boxes since 1934 when Lou Gherig appeared bat in hand.  Champions of every stripe have found a place on a Wheaties box from aviator Elinor Smith, the first woman to find a place in the Wheaties pantheon, to Van Lingle Mungo, strikeout leader of the National League while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1936.  Groundbreaking choices include wheelchair road racer George Murray and  nine-year old football phenomenon Sam Gordon, who rocked the sports world as she scored 25 touchdowns and recorded 65 tackles in her first year of competition in Salt Lake City youth football.

Do they break into song when they feel energized?

“He’s got Go-Power; there he goes.  He’s feeling his Cheerios.”

Cheerios is another in the family of General Mills cereals, on the shelves since 1945 and featuring the Cheerios Kid in television throughout the 1950’s.  The kid faced formidable challenges, seemingly insurmountable, until he wolfed down a bowl of Cheerios, at which point, it was averred, he got “Go Power”, and there he went!

For most of my Cheerios childhood, the box portrayed a bowl of Cheerios, pretty much looking the way it would on any breakfast table.  But, because General Mills was a long-time sponsor of the Lone Ranger on radio and television, a Cheerios box might feature sporadic Lone Ranger tie-ins, including prizes in the box and contests to fire the imagination.  Television’s Lone Ranger, the iconic Lone Ranger, was played by Clayton Moore, whose silky voice and impressive frame matched the ideal of honesty, fair dealing, law and order, and manly compassion.  When his career as the ranger ended, Moore moved to Golden Valley, Minnesota, home of General Mills and sold real estate.

Hauntingly familiar?

“Kellogg Sugar Corn Pops.  Sugar Pops are tops!

Oh the Pops are sweeter and the taste is new;  they’re shot with hot with sugar through and through!”

“Shot with sugar through and through” may not be the health watchwords of this decade, but it sure hit the spot in  the 50’s and 60’s.  The jingle is of particular interest, quite aside from  its nutritional provocation, in that the cereal kept changing its name.  Corn Pops, Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Pops.  What the heck?  In the same fashion, the box featured cowboy actor Guy Madison as Wild Bill Hickcock most months but occasionally tossed out a box picturing Hickock’s wing man, cowboy buffoon, Jingles, played by Andy Devine, one in a long series of curiously ineffective but apparently necessary cowboy sidekicks appearing in film and tv westerns.  Then, when  Wild Bill left the air, Sugar Whatevers presented Sugar Pops Pete, a groundhog dressed in  cowboy gear.  It got worse with time as a female porcupine, “Poppy” was followed by an actor playing an actual sugar pop, corn pop, or puff, or pod.

Sugar Pops could not compare with Sugar Smacks, which not only persisted in using clowns in their advertising but happily boasted that the product was more than 50% sugar.  As jingles go, “The Sugar Smacks Swing” was thoroughly frightening, performed by not one, but TWO clowns and disturbing in ways I cannot yet name.

Do I know my password?  Can I remember my user name?  Not reliably.

But … ask me to belt out the words to jingles long forgotten and I am ready to rumble.  It doesn’t seem to matter what product the jingles touts, they are all stuffed in there somewhere, taking the place of anniversary dates, names of world leaders, and the location of the car I parked twenty minutes ago.

I have to assume that some were fairly regional as faces go blank when I sing the Castro Convertible song, although the response may have something to do with my breaking into song about convertible couches.

It’s pretty clever and catchy as all get out.

Who was the first to conquer space ?*  Castro Convertible.  

The first to conquer living space?  Castro Convertible

Who conquered space with fine design?  Who saves you money all the time?  

Who’s tops in the convertible line?  

Castro Convertible.

*See, it sounds as if  the song is about the space race and planetary exploration, but it’s actually about a sofa that can also be a bed.  See?  Clever, huh?

My performance of the jingle describing clothing sold by Robert Hall clothier cannot match the magic spun by Les Paul and Mary Ford.  Here’s the link, but in case the words fly by too quickly, here it is for your singing pleasure.

School bells ring and children sing

It’s back to Robert Hall again

Mother knows for better clothes

It’s back to Robert Hall again

You’ll save more on clothes for school

Shop at Robert Hall.

I admit the last line is weak, but the pull of the earlier verses certainly carries the listener into foaming pre-shopping frenzy.

The holidays are tough on my long-suffering children (my wife doesn’t seem to hear or notice) when the festivity of the season brings the irresistible urge to belt out seasonal jingles from the dusty closet that is my mind.  The Robert Hall Christmas jingle is one of my particular faves as it combines the peppy bounce of the best of the Hall jingles with a lively evocation of the nativity, in clothing terms.

Finally, and with no apology, the jingle that needs no introduction, with words that do not tax memory, and with performers so darned cute you’ll be feeling fuzzy warm all day long.