Thursday, August 20, 2015

My story for the Monti: "On the Road"

Summer of 1974, at a damp campground near Amsterdam I joined a hippy expedition already in progress. We were 21 cheapskates driving to the Soviet Union in three beat up VW buses crammed with moldy old canvas tents, sleeping bags, kitchen equipment and tattered suitcases. I met my designated tentmate, Phoebe, a gloomy nerd, and she asked me to help her pack up. While she fumbled and I tried to be patient I watched a tall lanky guy with a moustache breaking camp much more efficiently than we were. We piled into the rusty vans and set off.

I'd been hoping this adventure would help me forget a failed love affair but so far it hadn't gone well. In London my wallet had been stolen. Then I'd puked my way across the choppy English channel. Then I'd stupidly visited my old flame in Paris where he was living with a new girlfriend. Things looked up in Amsterdam with its dozens of brightly painted psychedelic weed-selling coffeehouses, and I accepted an invitation from a total stranger to spend the night in his loft overlooking a canal. I hadn't realized we'd be sharing his bed, but what the hell? It was the last bed I'd sleep in for six weeks.

So now the VW caravan took off across Scandinavia; tall lanky George was our driver. We arrived in Sweden on Midsummer Night, when the sun never sets, and the campground was full of revelers carousing around bonfires until dawn under a weird maroon sky. Next day we boarded a ferry to Helsinki and the 16 hour crossing was an another all-night party as the northern lights, a brilliant green, were reflected in the dark sea. George and I leaned on the railing and watched silent black islands glide past, some only big enough for a single pine tree. Turns out he was an engineer from Kansas, hah! That's why he was better at everything than the rest of us.

At the border between Finland and the USSR, guards with machine guns and dogs checked our papers and made us take everything out of the vans so they could confiscate any drugs, blue jeans destined for the black market, bibles, or decadent music. After a four hour inspection we were on our way, now with Russian tourguides in our vans to keep us in line. If we ever started down a road not on the approved itinerary, police cars came screeching up out of nowhere to head us off.

Phoebe's lugubrious nature and camping ineptitude got on my nerves, and our tent leaked. I kept my eye on that lanky guy George. I like tall men, and he would have been good looking if it hadn't been for his ridiculous handlebar moustache. He was a little dull, but on the other hand he could get a fire going in the blink of an eye and his tent DIDN'T leak. For the first and last time in my life I seduced a man for material gain: ignoring the moustache, I cut him out of the herd and moved into his tent with him, abandoning dreary Phoebe. When he warned me not to fall for him because this was just a summer fling, I said: "Fine, George." Nowadays one would say: “Whatever.”

So here's a thing we learned about Soviet campgrounds: only the best of them even had outhouses. We'd reach one of these sorry dumps, set up in the least filthy place we could find, and then get dragged by our guides on a long non-optional tour of local Lenin statues and cement factories.

In Moscow banners of Stalin, Brezhnev and (surprisingly) President Nixon were on every wall. Bent little old ladies swept the streets with brooms made of sticks. George and I drank kvas, made of fermented rye bread, from vending machines on the street, you drank from the one communal cup and left it for the next customer. We met a guy who'd flown to Sochi, partied hard, and then flown back to Moscow with a suitcase full of oranges he could sell on the black market for enough to finance his whole debauched vacation. In a marble steam room doughy naked women flagellated each other with bundles of birch branches and invited me to join them.

If I'd liked Moustache George more it would have been romantic, camping by a river in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains, riding a rusted-out ski lift that rattled and shook high above microscopic sheep on the rocky fields below. We posed for a photo on the Odessa steps and in Yalta marveled at the palm trees and at fat men strutting proudly down the beach in tiny swimsuits. We crossed the Black Sea to Romania on a steamship that had a swimming pool and a dance band and a talent show which I didn't win.

We got off the steamship and really had to haul ass back to Amsterdam to make our flight home. Eastern Europe whizzed by in a blur, we hurled ourselves into the plane, I don't even remember saying goodbye to George. Senior year started and I forgot about him until I got a letter postmarked Lawrence, Kansas. So much for us being a summer fling, now he wanted to marry me. I turned him down, though, because I didn't believe Kansas was really even a place, and, then, there was that moustache.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

In which I learn a new way to treat a donkey hoof abscess

It's been almost eight years I've had Jethro the donkey now. (Left, picture of him when I was just buying him out in Iredell County.)

I've learned a lot over this time and Jethro has become far more mannerly.

One thing that's worse is, he gets hoof abscesses now. He and his buddy Hector have churned up the mud along their fence line and they stand in that muck most of the day watching us and waiting for treats. It's no use moving them, they just do the same thing in the new place. I got a concrete pad poured in the shed where we feed them but they mostly just want to stand by their fence and beg for corn cobs and banana peels.

Donkeys are so strong, it's not the fence per se but their general lack of imagination that holds them back. Jethro's lack of imagination failed momentarily about a week or two ago and, under cover of darkness, by finding and pushing on a plank that was nailed, not screwed, into its post he escaped. When I woke up in the morning and went out on my balcony there he was in the front yard, eating the green grass enthusiastically and with a big happy round belly.

Two weeks later, he was very ill. He walked like he had arthritis, each foot shakily planted on the ground. Our new vets, Triangle Equine, diagnosed laminitis (I gather this is like the first stage of foundering) stemming from his one night of over indulgence! They said horses and ponies founder almost immediately after a gorge, but that in donkeys it can be delayed up to a month! And by the time they got here he had also developed a nasty hoof abscess.

They prescribed "Bute" (phenylbutazone) to treat both the laminitis and the abscess. But what I really wanted to share was the way they now protect the donkey hoof over the week or so while an abscess is draining.

Previously I was told to soak the foot in a bath of epsom salts and then put the clean foot into a booty made of a feed bag and tape it on. That was hard. Jethro was willing to keep his foot in the epsom salts bath only as long as I was feeding him sweet feed. When I stopped he immediately took his hoof out and put it squarely down into the muck again.

Here's what the new vets do: They make a pad of duct tape, like this, each piece overlapping the one before. Then they do a second, perpendicular layer on top of that one.

They take an already-folded-in-half disposable baby diaper (newborn size) and fold it in half again. That's about the size of Jethro's hoof. They put it in the middle of the duct tape.

Then they take one of these Animalintex hoof poultices, trim it a bit to the size of the bottom of his hoof, soak it briefly in water, and put it on top of folded diaper. Then you mash that whole mess up onto the hoof and pull the duct tape mat up and around the hoof, getting the sticky part surrounding your poultice to stick to the sides of the hoof. And then take the roll of duct tape and wrap madly till the whole thing is trapped securely in place. Do this every day till it's not necessary any more (your vet will tell you I guess).

They explained that the pad contains epsom salts and when you wet it it will draw the mooky stuff down and out and keep the hoof clean while it's healing.

I just thought, in case your donkey has a hoof abscess, you'd want to know about this. Two days later he is walking just fine.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Moo the chicken is no more.

It's hard to see, but this is a picture of a chicken with a pendulous crop. The crop is at the base of the neck and is where chicken digestion begins. After a big meal all chicken's crops are softly bulging.

But this chicken's crop started to swell more and more. We watched over a week, hoping it would go away, but it got so bad it drooped almost to the ground. The internet advised massage, but the mass was dense, "like play dough," and massage was doing nothing, so Monday Ez took her to the Avian and Exotic Animal Veterinary clinic...

... where they told him parrots and cockatiels used to be the most common patients, but now that Raleigh has decriminalized them, chickens are the most common birds in their practice.

In order to put our chicken into the computer a name was needed, so the tech named this chicken Moo, which was adorable.

The vet wrapped her into a "crop bra," a stretchy Ace Bandage sort of thing that was supposed to hold the crop up high so gravity would work in her favor. We've been giving her medicine twice a day (the same medicine humans get when their bowels are obstructed) and keeping her in the upstairs bathroom.

She's not even five months old yet but she laid her first (and, it turns out, only) two eggs in the bathtub. She was alert, glossy, eating well, not upset about wearing her crop bra, ok with the medicine...

... she even got kind of tame and affectionate...

... which made it harder today when I took her back for her followup and, seeing that there had been some reduction in the size of the impacted crop, but not much, and that the only other alternative was a $800-900 operation which would require her living in the house for several more weeks... and that, even then, it was quite likely that this condition would recur...

... and, considering that any day now a fox is going to find a way into my compound and polish off all the chickens (it's happened before)...

... we decided to have Moo euthanized. The vet said delicately, "This was a hard decision to make without knowing what position the chicken held in your family." In other words, if Moo had been my soul mate, perhaps I would have wanted her cured at any cost.

I'm devoted to chickens, but not to any one chicken. I can't afford to be with the mortality rate being what it is around here. I spent a fortune beefing up the deer fence to keep foxes out (it is VERY HARD to keep foxes out when there are chickens around), but nothing will keep raccoons out. And there are weasels, possums, snakes and hawks also interested in what's on offer.

So I told the vet to euthanize Moo. It was surprisingly hard, now that she had a name and was friendly and had been my housemate all week and laid eggs in the bathtub. And was glossy and zesty and not in pain and interested in life. But the next step was going to be the putrefaction of whatever was in there that wouldn't come out, and the outcome would have been the same.

At the very same time, Jethro has been ill, but that will wait for another day. Goodbye, Moo!

Friday, July 24, 2015

The story I did not get to tell at the Monti last night: "My Greatest Moment"

I stressed over choosing my greatest moment. For one thing, I had to consider what happened after the supposed great moment. I thought the day I got my first - and turns out, only - full-time job was a triumph -- but I soon hated the job and got fired a week later. Or just last month I got an all-expense paid trip to Mexico City to perform a Yiddish song I'd written for this international competition, a knockoff of American Idol called "Der Yidisher Idol." And in fact I won, I am the Grand Champion 2015! But turned out the organizers had blown their budget flying all us international finalists into town, so there was no Grand Prize, and now that I'm home if I take a stab at talking about it, people just look confused and say, "that's nice, dear."

I also didn't want to choose a greatest moment from long ago: then my whole life since would be an anticlimax. My grandmother had a brother Geoffrey: nineteen days after seeing a bobsled for the very first time he joins the US bobsled team at the 1928 Olympics and takes home a gold medal. Great, right? He lived another 60 years and never could top that.

Or my mom, she peaked right out of college and then spent the rest of her time on earth drinking alone and snarling at her family. Jeez, I was afraid her crappy mothering style would turn out to be genetic. There were morbid harbingers: when I was little and people gave me dolls I cut off their hair, took off their clothes and threw them naked into the little heap of plastic corpses at the dark back of my closet. Then there was the Christmas in junior high when for some reason I sewed a little dolly for each member of my family, I tucked each doll into a close-fitting handmade cardboard box covered with the same fabric her dress was made out of, nice little cardboard boxes with hinged lids, I realized years later they were little mini-mes in calico coffins.

But when I had kids, I was a better mom than mine had been, and that was great, and I don't drink, so that's great, and now my daughter Hannah's a mom, a much better one than I was, and that's great too.

This past weekend Hannah brought her 2-year-old to stay with me while she was at a conference. Hiram and I had a blast: we rode the train at the Museum of Life and Science and at lunch he fed burger and fries to his new toy moose. He made pretend soup in a little blow up swimming pool and shouted out Old McDonald Had a Farm at the drop of a hat.

Sunday we walked hand in hand down to a bouncy suspension bridge in the park. I showed how he could drop gravel off the bridge into the stream and he was electrified. For the next half an hour -- or maybe it was an hour and a half, I kind of lost track -- he was trundling back and forth, carefully selecting two choice pieces of gravel at a time, putting one little stone in each of his two pockets, climbing the stairs to the bridge, clumping carefully across the slats, then he'd sit down next to me, lean out over the water, and drop his two pieces of gravel in the stream, plonk, plink. Then he'd say "I do it again" and he'd go back for two more pieces of gravel, over and over. His mom did the same thing, at the same bridge, thirty years ago. She loved gravel too, so that's what's genetic.

Sunday night Hannah was back from her conference and together we put Hiram to bed in his indoor tent, but at 2am he was suddenly sobbing. I know poop stories are popular at the Monti so here's one: he had pooped so extravagantly the squishy stinkiness of it woke him up in a rage! Hannah changed his awful diaper and walked around jiggling him but he was stuck between being asleep and awake, screaming. So I held them both in my arms and started asking: "Hiram, do you remember the gravel?” He woke a little. “Today when we went to the swinging bridge? You got the gravel and put it in your pockets?” He had to cry less to hear this riveting tale. “Then you climbed the stairs and dropped the rocks in the water? Remember? Remember how the big stones went PLONK and the little stones went PLINK?"

He was still gasping woefully but when I said PLINK he laughed a little through his tears. "Don't you want to tell Matt [that's his precious stuffed elephant] about the gravel you threw in the water?" Great idea! Yes, he did! He started leaning toward his room. Hannah put him in the tent, which is just like the one she slept in 30 years ago, and I watched as she lay down on the floor in the dark, half in and half out of the tent, and she crooned him a quiet little nighttime song that got quieter and quieter. And so, standing in the doorway watching her there singing to her son in the dark, that was it, my greatest moment...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I'll be teaching and performing at the 2015 PicknBow folk music retreat at the Murphey School in Durham August 21-23

Click on the picture at left to see the full-sized poster for our folk singing and guitar banjo ukulele mandolin picking camp held in Durham North Carolina the weekend of August 21-23 2015.

We have a roaring good time. There is a wonderful staff concert Saturday night and an even more wonderful campers' concert on Sunday afternoon. For details see the Pick 'n Bow website.

Instructors are Danny Gotham, Julie Elkins, Joe Newberry, Bobb Head, and me. I'll be teaching harmony vocals, fiddle, holding song circles, and even convening a honky tonk session on Sunday.

Here's a picture taken at the conclusion of last year's camp:

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Other musicians who are finalists in "Der Yidisher Idol" in Mexico City this weekend

Ever since I found out I was going to be able to go to Mexico City to "compete" in Der Idisher Idol I've been very curious about the other participants. Now I can put faces on several of them.

A week or so ago I was contacted by Martin Quetsche from the German duo/trio Schmarowotsnik - he found the blog post I'd put on my telenovela site! Martin sings and plays accordion, and coming with him to Mexico is Christine v. Bülow (oboe and English horn). Click the photo to hear them playing An alter schiker (An Old Drunk).

I knew I'd seen Sarah Myerson's face somewhere recently - it was on my Facebook feed when she and Jeff Warschauer gave a concert together celebrating their graduation from cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I met Jeff almost thirty years ago when he was teaching mandolin at the now sadly departed Klezkamp in the Catskills. Sarah graduated from the Conservatorium of Music (Sydney, Australia) and won the 2014 Arthur Einstein Memorial Prize in Composition. Click the photo to hear her singing "Ikh vel eybik dir gedenken."

Zeev Alberto Malbergier from Argentina is the only other contestant I know about. I wasn't able to find out much about him, but he was a choral director for many years and has written melodies for prayers. Click to hear him sing Du Heibst Mij Hoij (his Yiddish version of You Lift Me Up).

Mitch Smolkin, from Toronto, is past Artistic Director of the Ashkenaz Festival. His website was out of order when I visited but click the picture to hear him singing "New York, New York" in Yiddish with a very zesty pianist.

Der Idisher Idol will take place this Sunday, June 14 2015, 6pm, at Comunidad Betel de México. The contest organizers asked us to send them videos promoting the show, here is mine:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Gems from Farm Show magazine volume 39 number 3 (May 2015)

"Farm Show" is the only magazine I get -- I actually look forward to it and read it cover to cover. It is a fat sheaf of newsprint pages containing ideas to make your farm more profitable, hacking heavy equipment, tips on what are wonderful and what are awful things to buy, and so much more. So here are some thing I liked this week:

Porta-Potty Pigeon Coop: "Like any good remodeling job, the first task was to gut the interior and wash it out."

From Wildlife Control Supplies, the "Underground Animal Barrier" - 15-inch long galvanized 4-gauge steel rods 1 1/4-in. apart. "The steel rods keep out most wild animals." [Emphasis mine.] Sold in 40-foot kits for $189.95 (plus shipping) that can be driven in the ground as deep as you need to go. See how the animals are always winning?

A guy highly recommended the machines sold by AECT Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies. They turn dirt into building bricks: "Compressed Earth Block is ... formed in a mechanical press that forms an appropriate mix of dirt, non-expansive clay and aggregate into a compressed block." I think this is a fabulous idea and would like to do it. I want to see the dirt patties come spitting out of the machine. Visit this sample Earth Block Machine, "designed for the homeowner or small contractor ... can be loaded with buckets or pails." Hannah and I visited a guy in the Puerto Rican rain forest who would have loved this even more than I do. But don't you end up with a giant hole where you dug out the dirt?

And finally, to solve a problem I am aghast merely contemplating...

"Drop Trap" Catches Entire Wild Hog Herds. 

The BoarBuster is is a remote-activated corral suspended in the air. "[It] sets above eye level, allowing hogs to come and go without fear until an operator triggers the unit remotely. 'We were able to capture up to 86 percent of hogs in an area with drop nets versus 49 percent with standard corral traps,' says Gaskamp. 'That was enough to control the population, and it didn't educate the ones who weren't caught. You need to eliminate approximately 70 percent just to keep up with annual reproduction.'

"One reason for the effectiveness was that hogs don't have predators overhead so they don't look up. After baiting, a remote operator can watch the site anywhere internet service is available. When the majority, if not all, of a group of hogs is inside the corral area, the operator triggers the corral, and the outside ring falls to the ground in a rotating motion. The inner ring remains elevated to prevent the hogs from jumping out. 'I once triggered the BoarBuster while watching a baseball game in Oregon,' recalls Gaskamp."

Monday, May 18, 2015

I realized I'm yearning to paint again...

I used to have a standing date to paint for hours every Sunday with a friend, we were avid followers of Illustration Friday. But that ended five years ago and since then I only paint when I need a cd cover. After doing four cds in two years I was pretty burnt out, so no new cds, so no new paintings.

Tonight my friend Paul was a good sport and went with me to an odd meetup in Chapel Hill. At Zog's Bar and Pool Hall - a charming and atmospheric dive up a rickety flight of stairs in the heart of town - Mandey, the owner, sponsors the weekly "Masterpiece Monday Drawing Event" meetup. This week Paul and I were the only masterpiece makers to show up. She arranged the still life you see here (photo by Paul Deblinger) and put out some art materials and we just chatted and had a drink and an artistic evening. We could also have played pool but I don't know how.

I see that my paints are in awful shape - the lids are gunked up and a lot of them are dried out. I am so stingy with paint that the tubes and tubs last a long time - too long. It pains me to throw them out but it has to be done.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How to get the right picture, the right title, and the right description to appear in Facebook shares

I have spent so many hours trying to figure out how to fix something which used to work fine but is now broken:

Have you noticed that when you share a link on Facebook, you are now likely to get some random image and some generic title instead of the featured blog post picture and the title of that very post?

It used to be simple. Then suddenly for weeks whatever I link to from my blog has the same picture and the same title.

So I went down the rabbit hole reading about Facebook's "Open Graph" protocol. Turns out it does not work very well with the Blogger classic templates. The coding which is recommended everywhere fails for me.

Well, there is a very simple manual solution. Facebook now lets you upload your own picture to a share and also lets you edit the title and description of the link.

Paste the URL of your link into the share box but don't hit the "share" button.

Hover your mouse over the undesirable picture which appears and you'll see an "upload picture" option. So that solves the "wrong picture" problem.
But what I just found out now is that if you hover your mouse over the link title it turns yellow (highlighted) and you can edit it.
And if you hover over the description, it too becomes highlighted and you can edit it.
Not automatic. But it works.
Now you’ve taken a very messy link that is not specific to your followers, and told them exactly what they’ll find when they click on it. Simple.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In which I submit "I Can't Keep Up" to Der Yidisher Idol in Mexico City

Jane Peppler, Ken Bloom and Jim Baird of Mappamundi recording a Yiddish songWhen I heard there was going to be the second annual "Der Yidisher Idol" this summer I decided I had to enter the competition. I hate competing but I like supporting quixotic causes. I recently held a competition on my telenovela blog and out of the 12,000 visitors we have a day, only TWO people submitted entries. That bummed me out. So if nothing else, I will swell the Mexican contest's applicant pool.

They are calling it the Yiddish version of "American Idol" but it's actually more about songwriting: there's a $750 prize for the best original Yiddish lyrics to an existing tune, and a $1000 prize for the best original Yiddish song, lyrics and tune both. I decided to submit videos in both categories. I've had bronchitis since I came back from snowy Boston a MONTH ago, so I sang these two songs with a lot of coughing in between takes. Lots and lots of coughing. For some reason the second one sounds like I inhaled helium. Oh well.

Here's the first one. A few years ago I fell in love with the 18th century German folksong Stets in trauer and the version I heard was in a Southern dialect that sounded kind of like Yiddish to me. So I decided to write Yiddish lyrics for it. It's a song I really relate to but I wish I didn't. Sadly, I do remember what it's like to be madly in love with a bum and patiently waiting for him to... to what? What do bums ever do? Anyway, here it is, with Roger Lynn Spears on the piano. There are subtitles so you can get the story! Roger did not want to be on camera so I lip-synched this afterwards, a skill I do not have.

So the second one was more of a challenge. I've only written maybe five songs in my whole life and never feel like I have anything to tell the world, so that's a roadblock. I decided to write myself an anthem, why should I not have one? This one, I had to lip-sync and play fake piano because I only have two mics so we couldn't all record it at once.

I used Nahum Stutchkoff's Yiddish Rhyming Dictionary, and his marvellous thesaurus (out of print but you can often find a copy on eBay). And a dictionary. The Yiddish equivalent of "I Can't Keep Up" is Ikh ken nit mithaltn.

I got Sheva Zucker to vet the grammar and help with words - she said some that I'd chosen were "in the dictionary but nobody uses them." Ken Bloom and Jim Baird from our band Mappamundi came for the afternoon to record this as well as priceless songs from the past which will appear here at a later date! (Yaka Hula Hiki Du af yidish and Donkey Monkey Business aka Donki Monki Biznes).

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Story telling prompt: "Roommates."

I didn't get picked to tell a story at the Monti tonight but here's the one I prepared.

In Cambridge MA in the 70s, group houses were hippy versions of the Addams Family. I lived in one, a beautiful Victorian house with a turret, inside the turret on the third floor was a jungle of hanging plants and there you'd find Anne H. sitting on the couch when she was high, working macrame plant hangers out of jute twine and beads. I had a great bedroom jutting out over the front porch, with a bay window, stained glass at the top, a primo view of the street corner where there were frequently non-fatal traffic accidents near the liquor store. I built a tall bed out of 2x4s so I could prop myself on my elbows and watch guys jump out and curse each other over the broken glass of their fender benders.

The house was ruled by Victor S., son of the Sauerkraut King of upstate New York, making him the Prince of Sauerkraut, but he disdained the family business so was in self-imposed exile. He actually had a car! He tricked it out with a special ionizer, in the tin foil hat family, to align the car's air molecules optimally. Eventually he went back home to rule his kingdom, the money being too good to pass up.

His replacement, my college friend, music critic Jon P., rolled up in his mom's car and decanted a gaggle of friends and siblings, they made a bucket brigade from the car across the sidewalk across the porch through the front door, hand-over-handing his endless boxes of LPs up the stairs. Just a year later the process was reversed when he left for Manhattan to write for Rolling Stone and then the New York Times.

Some among us wanted the next roommate to be an uptight intellectual, others wanted a laid-back hippy. Our barely adequate compromise candidate was another Jon, one I later married, that's another story. He was a poet, and bike mechanic at the "Mystic Cycle" collective, so hip its female co-owners had rejected the patriarchy completely and had no last names.

Jon and I might never have gotten it on, because you shouldn't sleep with your roommate, but the owners of our paradise sold the place and threw us all out, so he and I went looking for a new place together. It had to be cheap - he earned $2.68 an hour and I was supporting myself writing sonnets, which is another story. We moved to working class Somerville, now gentrified but then a grotty city where men carved parking places out of snowdrifts and defended them with garbage cans and fists.

We had three roommates at 45 Spencer Avenue. There was Kathy M., an anthropologist who while doing her fieldwork in a Francophone fishing community in northern New Brunswick had fallen in love with one of her fishermen subjects. She tied up our phone chatting in French with Bernard. There was Dick P., he made a good living turning high end Renaissance recorders on his lathe, tinting them with Lady Clairol hair dye, and selling them for $700 a pop. And there was Scott, last name forgotten, he worked a graveyard shift repairing copy machines. He said he was a science fiction writer but he never wrote, he had a jazz band, Laughing Moon, but he never gigged. What he DID do was tend a massive marijuana plantation in the attic, so scientific, littlest plants out by the eaves and as they grew (robustly) he moved them towards the center of the attic where the gro-lights were higher. Every day he hauled himself up to the attic, harvested a very generous armful of weed, then baked it in our oven and consumed it all himself. Then he'd lie on his bed, tootling into his trumpet mouthpiece because he was too damn to actually stand up and play the entire trumpet.

Eventually we felt we had to leave. It wasn't the awful hippy bread made of soy flour and brewers yeast. It wasn't the deafening weekly bassoon quartet rehearsals. It wasn't the book "Hitler was a Sugar Fanatic" that Dick waved at us or the sarcastic post-it notes left anonymously on the towering piles of dishes in the sink. Nor was it the flagrant disrespect of the chore wheel.

No, it was tuna casserole. Scott baked it every week when it was his turn to make dinner, and every week Jon told him: I don't like tune casserole, and every week there it was again, finally one day we came home and smelled the smell of our house, baked marijuana and tuna casserole, and Jon lost his mind! He ran upstairs to where Scott was lying on his bed tootling into his trumpet mouthpiece and yelled "I F&*#NG HATE TUNA CASSEROLE," and so soon we went to live in a group house in an Armenian neighborhood in Belmont, with a couple of glassy eyed anthroposophists and an ancient Wiccan shrine in the back yard. But that's another story.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The story I told at tonight's Monti Story Slam on the subject of "The First Time..."

This is about the first time I heard my father's life story. He was a stern man, as a kid I didn't understand him. Why did he mock us for being soft suburbanites when he was the one who planted us in the suburbs? If we were uppity it was: "My dad would have taken down my britches and tanned me for that!" If we were barefoot it was: "When we were kids they took our shoes away in the spring and didn't give them back till fall, so you're going to wear yours, damnit!" He found the things we cared about -- foolish.

My dad was Pennsylvania Dutch. His austere Lutheran ancestors settled York county in the middle of the 1700s and never left. He grew up in an 18th century farmhouse with a hex sign on the barn. My grandmother spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch until she was taken out of school in fourth grade to roll cigars at the "English" tobacco factory.

Why didn't my dad ever ask how things were going for us? Because farming folks don't intrude on your personal space. If you're well enough to do your work, you're fine, and if you aren't, for instance if like two of my Peppler foremothers you spend most of your adult life in an asylum, they say you're poorly and don't inquire further.

So my dad never told me anything about his life until 1999, the year he was dying of leukemia. Out of the blue he called one day - astonishing, he never called me! and he asked for help writing down his memories, he'd gone blind from the cancer and couldn't do it alone. I was so excited, I grabbed my cassette recorder, jumped in the car, and drove 11 hours straight.

His story opens with descriptions of the family farm, which fields were fertile and which were rocky and how to plough a hillside so the topsoil stays where it belongs, how they butchered hogs and dried black walnuts in the attic, how when he was six for the first time he walked the two miles through the woods and across fields to the one room schoolhouse (which is still there in that cornfield, King's School).

There was so much death in his story! He didn't even mention his little sister Pauline who died at six of polio, but he gleefully recalled his the 5 cent bounty his grandfather paied for every rat killed in his barn. My dad plugged most of the rat escape routes and rigged up old license plates above the others so they'd come slamming down over the remaining holes all at once and he and his dog could wade in among the trapped rats, he clubbed them to death while his dog shook and crunched them by the dozen. When he was older, policing a barn too big for that system, he'd sit in the dark by the light switch, listening for rats' rustling, then quickly turn on the light and shoot any rats that had poked their heads above ground, then shoot others as they fled, then turn out the light and wait again. When the escape tunnels were clogged with corpses he hooked the dead rats out of their tunnels and dumped them in his collection barrel.

He shot and skinned groundhogs, muskrats, possums, foxes, weasels, and skunks: back then in the Depression the pelts fetched welcome cash. He shot rabbits and squirrels and his mom skinned them, dressed them, and turned them into stew.

All that killing! A natural segue to his getting drafted 2 weeks after his 18th birthday. He crossed the Atlantic on the USS America with 9,999 other troops. Cots were stacked 12-high in the hold, there was vomit everywhere, especially on the unfortunate guys in the bottom bunks. He won a lot of money playing cards.

They landed and commenced walking across Europe; even before reaching his unit he'd already been fired on and a good friend from training "took one in the throat." His division, the Eighth Infantry, "relieved Bastogne, crossed the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine and walked deep into Germany" through that muddy, snowy winter when they could rarely take off any of their clothes at all.

"His day," April 3 1945, began when he and another scout were sent over a hill to check out the village below. Turns out they were expected and so this time THEY were the rats, as they crested the hill they were both shot. The other scout was killed instantly, my dad fell to the ground in the middle of what became the battlefield. A “hot fire fight” went on for hours while my 18-year-old father lay on the field, stung by bits of the mortars falling around him, pressing his torn up face, blood gushing everywhere. He "accepted the fact that it was over and got a very calm feeling, but imagined the sadness back home."

Three or four hours later he was pulled to safety and taken by litter to a field hospital. The bullet had gone in one cheek and out the other, shattering his jaw and blowing out many teeth. His jaw was wired shut for six months. He concluded this section of the memoir with a newspaper his parents brought him when he was finally well enough to be flown to a stateside hospital. The headline read: "Army Says Not Sending 18 Year Olds Overseas."

My dad died not long after finishing this memoir, I'm so grateful he shared it in time. I thought about often when my own son was 18. No wonder dad couldn't bring himself to care about the things that mattered to the kids he raised in peacetime suburbia, no wonder he thought our concerns were foolish. After all, as the prayerbook reminds us, "things which are foolish in comparison to death are foolish in and of themselves."

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Old fashioned potato knishes

I invited my friend Paul to come over and make knishes with me, I'd never tried them before. We used the following dough recipe which is from Joe the Pastry Guy

Traditional knish dough
2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/2 cup water
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, put wet ingredients into a well in the middle of the dry ones, stir vigorously until melded, knead in the bowl for a minute, cover with saran wrap and let rest for an hour.

Here is the filling we made:

Filling for potato knishes
1-1/2 pounds of potatoes cut in halves or quarters. We did not peel them.
2 onions chopped up in the food processor (next time I will use three)
A big bunch of parsley chopped up in the food processor
1 tablespoon of oil
2 tablespoon of butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
lots of pepper
an egg (or an egg white, or an egg yolk) for glazing

Put water on to boil as you scrub your potatoes and cut them. Put them in the coldish water, bring to a boil, and cook around 20 minutes. Meanwhile, start frying the onions over low heat in the salt, oil and butter. The longer, the better, we cooked ours almost half an hour, stirring constantly, but they could have cooked longer. Towards the end we added the parsley and pepper.

We each had a rolling pin. I divided the dough into four balls, he rolled out two and I rolled out two, as thin as possible, they came out about 18" long and about 4" wide. Along the long side we put a long log of filling about an inch tall, spread some oil on the still exposed part of the dough, and rolled the dough up so it wrapped around the filling almost twice.

Then you mash down on the filling about every 2-1/2 inches with your hand and where you mashed, pick up the end, twist where you mashed (like a sausage casing) and cut where you twisted. You end up with a little pillow twisted closed at both ends. Squish it around and put it with one of the twisted ends down on the baking sheet, then I pushed into the middle top (at the other twist) to make an indentation in mine but Paul didn't do that, so his are the ones that look sort of open at the top.

Beat the egg and glaze the knishes (we used our fingers). Bake for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees. This made about 25 knishes at the size you see in the picture.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

My story for last night's Storytelling Meetup was about Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks

I'm very much enjoying the Meetup I created for people who want to practice telling stories. I am a crummy story teller, as I'm too impatient. Most stories in my renditions skip right from the set up to the punch line. I'm trying to do better.

Our prompt for the evening was "Crime and Punishment." Either I've been pretty law abiding or my poor memory is shielding me from guilt, but few events surfaced. This is one of them, from many decades back.

The main characters are me, my mother, and my mother's twin sister MJ. My family lived in a bedroom suburb of New York City; my mother's twin sister Mary Jane lived in a studio apartment on 51st street in Manhattan.

My mother disliked her life and blamed me for it, my birth had taken her away from her glamorous job as researcher at Time Life Inc., where she drank and joked and flirted with important writers and publishers. My father had said the city was no place to raise a child, so because of me she was marooned in the suburbs, where she'd instantly alienated the neighbors by informing them their lives were boring. The adults of our suburban world were bored, unhappy hard-drinking stay at home mothers and tired, unhappy, hard-drinking fathers who every morning put on fedoras and great coats and picked up briefcases and drove to the train station and commuted to Manhattan.

I worshipped MJ, my mother's twin sister. She was feisty, funny, and independent, she was a painter and an art director, she'd been a reporter for Sports Illustrated and traveled all over the world. She'd been thrown out of Bryn Mawr for scaling the walls at night after curfew and for other reasons not shared with children in those days. She and her girlfriend fled to Italy and went to art school there and MJ would never have come back, but her mom got on a boat and sailed over the Atlantic and fetched her back, without the girlfriend.

MJ and her sister, my mom, never got along, so MJ visited rarely and it was always possible she'd blow up suddenly and leaving in a fury without saying goodbye, sometimes even walking the three miles to the train station to escape back to her own life.

MJ loved me just the way I was, which was irascible, independent, full of questions, always involved in messy projects. When my mother said "nobody will ever love you because you are so selfish," my aunt laughed and hugged me. She was the only member of my team, it was her love that kept me from a life in the loony bin.

My birthday is December 29, between Christmas and New Year's, depressing time for a birthday, cold and dark, nobody's in the mood, one birthday morning I called up the stairs, "aren't you going to wish me happy birthday?" and heard my mother say to my dad, "Oh damn, Willy, it's her birthday, go get her a present."

However in December 1962, for my ninth birthday, Mary Jane, who was visiting us, had promised an unimaginably special birthday treat: she and I would go into Manhattan together, just the two of us. I was beside myself with excitement and laid out my outfit days before, a red turtleneck the color of Target superstore and a blue jumper the color of Walmart.

At our house kids ate early, grownups ate late. The bill of fare the night before my birthday featured Mrs. Pauls' fish sticks, one of the three foods I hated most in the world, the other two being canned tomatoes and hot dogs. This time those fish sticks disgusted me so intensely, and here comes my CRIME, I threw them away. And here comes my brothers' walk-on roles, they ratted on me yelling: "JANIE THREW HER FISH STICKS AWAY."

My mother hustled into the kitchen, yup, there were the fish sticks in the trash, right on top in a row, I hadn't even thought to bury them, already you can see I am not a good sneak. I was the most incompetent liar in the family, too, I volunteered: "No, I did not throw away my fish sticks." "Of course you did, there they are in the trash." "No, I didn't."

This inane exchange went on for a while and then my aunt came in and, unaccountably to me, threw in with my mother, saying: "Janie, if you don't tell the truth, I'm not taking you to the city tomorrow."

That was a fearsome threat, so fearsome I didn't believe it. And besides, I was backed into a corner. After you've told the same lie a few times, it's hard to recant, as Lance Armstrong and numerous politicians have discovered. So I refused to confess and was sent to bed in disgrace.

The next morning, my birthday, a new day, I was so excited, cautiously optimistic I put on my outfit. Then my aunt came in the room and goes, "What are you dressed up for? I told you I wouldn't take you to the city if you didn't tell the truth."

The world came crashing down, I was speechless, she left for New York alone, without saying goodbye. I sat on my bed all morning in my special outfit, crying. I've hated those colors ever since, the Target red of that turtleneck and the Walmart blue of that jumper.

I shared this story with a friend and he said the lesson I learned from this event was the wrong one, but regardless, this is what it taught me: that there is no reprieve; even your favorite person, the only person on your team, can abandon you without saying goodbye. We never did take that special trip to the city.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out with the old: the first night of Hanukah and squash casserole

I spent a couple hours this morning getting rid of clothes that didn't make me happy. Since most of my clothes come from the Goodwill in the first place, I didn't feel bad sending them back there. Some were skirts too short for a woman my age to wear, some were in colors I never exactly liked, some didn't fit any more, some were experiments gone wrong... some were worn out... there was a red sweater I thought of as still pretty new until I saw a photo recently of me wearing it a quarter of a century ago...

It was the first night of Hanukkah of course and my friend Paul came over to light candles. I cooked borscht and a zucchini casserole.

The casserole was part of a long-term project: to actually COOK the recipes I've torn out of newspapers or wherever over the last decades and stuffed into a box. If these long-preserved never-prepared dishes turn out lousy, I'm throwing out those recipes. Duh, right?

This one turned out well. It's a keeper.

Zucchini casserole
2-1/2 pounds of zucchini sliced into thin rounds in the food processor
1-1/2 cup shredded cheddar (or other cheese, I am never particular)
3/4 cup ricotta
6 eggs
chopped parsley to taste
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste
3/4 cup breadcrumbs (I used Italian seasoning breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella

The original recipe said to put the rounds of zucchini in overlapping rows in a buttered lasagna pan. I actually did this and it looked beautiful but it took a long time and, as you put a topping on the casserole, nobody is ever going to see your nice design. Sprinkle each layer of zucchini with shredded cheddar.

Whip together the ricotta, eggs, parsley, salt, and pepper and pour over the zucchini.

Combine the last four ingredients and sprinkle over the top. Cook at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes. The recipe said to cover it with a tent of aluminum foil for the first 25 minutes of cooking but I forgot to do that and it turned out well anyway.


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