Thursday, December 27, 2007

Packing Peanuts

I received a chickadee winter roosting box for Christmas (something I have been pining after for a few years.) In the box were the ubiquitous packing peanuts, but this time with a twist! The box was packed with new starch peanuts. They are 100% biodegradable. According to a slip of paper in the box “Just a little water will dissolve them right before your eyes. They are environmentally friendly; water soluble; safe and easy to use; durable yet lightweight and best of all suitable for composting." I picked one up and stuck it under running water and lo and behold it dissolved. Finally someone came up with a fabulous solution to the packing problem. Drs. Foster and Smith puts its money where its mouth is when caring for the environment. I like that.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Old Time Ghost Story

Every holiday visit inevitably leads to “do you remember when?” and talk of the past. This holiday was no different. All the cousins were talking about genealogy. We are all going to work on to pool our knowledge. In the discussion of who knows what piece of family history; my mother tells this story.


Grandpa Charlie sat straight up in the middle of the night and looked around. “Davey?”
He got out of bed.

Grandma Lizzie rolled over. “Charlie, what’s wrong?”

“I just heard Davey call my name.”

“Charlie honey, that‘s not possible. Your brother lives down by the river. It would take days for him to get up here on horseback. Come back to bed.”

“I tell you, I just heard him call my name. He must be outside.”

Grandpa Charlie went outside and started to search the farm. Grandma Lizzie stood at the door with s shawl wrapped around her and looked out. She was scared. She had no idea of what was going on.

Grandpa Charlie finally came back to the house alone and perplexed.

“I can’t find him. It is strange. I heard him speak to me clear as a bell.”

Lizzie finally got him back to bed. Several days later they got word that the night Davey spoke to his brother was the night that he committed suicide by drowning himself in the river.”

I looked over to at my mother and then at my cousin Lynn.

“I never heard that story before.”

“Funny, I haven’t thought about it in years. I happened a long time ago. It is just a story that my mother told me about a funny thing that happened to her parents.”

These are the kinds of stories that need to be written down. I encourage you to talk with your aging relatives to get them reminiscing. You never know what will come up.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Living with trains

I awoke in the pitch black to the drawn out wail of a train whistle in the distance. The whistle grew louder as the train made its way toward town; then faded away and sounded again. If the weather is good you can hear the engineer blow the whistle 3 times for each crossing as the train moves through the 5 crossings in town. I lay in bed counting them off--Industrial, Main, Maple, Cherry, Raymond. The train faded into the distance as the clock on the courthouse bonged three times. I turned over and went back to sleep.

I grew up in a farming community. There is a grain elevator in the middle of town next to the train tracks. All of the farmers would come from miles around to drop off their grain in the fall. (Farmers get paid more for their grain if they take it to an elevator that has an adjacent track rather than a local elevator that has to truck it out.) Their tractors, trucks, and wagons would line the streets as they waited to be weighed. The elevator is still being used and the farmers still come. But now, more than grain leaves the community since manufacturing has come to town. Moving things by rail across the flatland is growing again with the price of gas being what it is.

As a result, waiting for a train to pass is part of daily life here. Trains come and go regularly throughout the day not just at night so if you need to be somewhere in a hurry on the other side of town, it is key to plan ahead or allow extra time or you will have to wait. The train tracks circle the town; you may even have to wait more than once on the same train. Sigh. Most annoying.

Trains in the day are different than trains at night. There is something lonesome about the whistle of a train in the darkness. I don’t know if it’s the tone or the sound of the whistle as it moves off. The romance of riding the rail is long gone but the feeling the whistle evokes is still there in this day of air travel.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Favorite Christmas Carols

I have been asking people what their favorite carol is. Here is the list so far:

O Holy Night
Adeste Fideles
Ave Maria
Jingle Bells (my 6 year old neighbor)
Silent Night
Away in the Manger (2 votes)
Bing’s White Christmas
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
El Burrito de Belen


Good King Wenceslas. It is a feel good song about giving.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Leave your favorite in the comment box.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cruising the streets

One of my favorite things to do at this time of year is drive around the neighborhoods to look at the Christmas lights, although perhaps I should say displays. Lord knows they are bigger, bouncier and more animated than ever. After dinner with friends last week, we drove on snowy roads listening to Nat King Cole sing Yuletide carols. We crept along admiring and often laughing at what people had done to their homes.

Some houses had no decorations that we could see. Others were subdued with only a lighted tree in the window. Most of them though had some outside lights. There were the ubiquitous white lights everywhere from icicles to those shrub nets. One house had an enormous lighted palm tree. (We actually stopped and backed up to get a better view.) Many houses had articulated reindeer or angels. We paused to see if they would move or not---whooping in delight if the angel’s wings flapped or the reindeer munched the snow. The little girl in me still prefers the multi-colored lights. It is so much prettier in the black and white winter night.

I have to confess that I dislike the craze for inflatables. But my friend in Minnesota had a good point. They do look nice in the daytime when the holiday lights are not on. Most of the blow-up ornaments are holiday specific. The snow globes are even clever. I have seen one left over Halloween inflatable of Garfield and a random Scooby though. Odd. Why would you still inflate them?

My house? Well it has candles in the windows and the tree upstairs this year. The tree will come down after Epiphany but I will leave the candles in the windows until late January.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers



My sister looked up. If you have ever shoveled snow, you know the
distinct sound and rhythm of a shovel scraping blacktop. The room
was dark except for the TV and the multicolored twinkling lights from
the tree in the corner.



Who is shoveling after dark? She looked at the clock. 8:30. She
pushed back the insulted drape and peering out in the darkness. She
saw a dark form shoveling the driveway at the old man's house next
door. Hmm. It must be his daughter. She looked over to her boyfriend.

"Wanna get cold?"

They both shrugged into their coats, grabbed 2 shovels and went
around the house.

"Want some help?"

The person shoveling stood up. It was not the daughter but a man
from up the street.


My sister and her boyfriend started to shovel. The man up the street
continued to shovel. The snow was heavy and wet. The 6 inches had
turned into 4 with the rain. It was hard work.

"It is like shoveling cement." The comment hung there in the stillness.

A few minutes later a man from several houses down the street showed
up having heard the sound of shoveling in the darkness. He started
to shovel too. The four strangers worked for half an hour together
in the darkness. They finished the driveway and the walk leading
to the house. They also cleared the sidewalk in front of the house.

When the job was done, they all met at the end of the driveway and
introduced themselves. Strangers, neighbors, and now friends.

Kindness is still alive and well in the flatland.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Up with the Peak

“Up with the Peak!” shouted the captain.

I looked up at the mast. I had opted for the peak line because it looked easier. Now it looked formidable. I planted my feet more firmly, changed my grip and started to pull. It took a while for me to get the rhythm-not too fast, not too slow. Hand over hand; it was easy until the sail started to rise.

“Up with the throat!”

The un-showered barely-caffeinated sailors on the other side of the boat started to heave.

“Way hey, up she rises. Way, hey up she rises…” the mate started to sing.

We heaved, pulled and struggled to raise the sail, two lines of strangers working for a common goal for the first of many times.

“Way, hey, up she rises, earl-eye in the morning.”

“Early, indeed,” someone behind me grumbled.

And it was true we had only had coffee. The rule was, first the sail, then breakfast. The smell of bacon cooking on a wood stove first thing on a chilly morning on the water was the incentive we needed. Such anticipation. My stomach growl in response. But first, the sails.

First one mumbled voice joined the song, then another. Soon we were all singing lustily.

“Way HEY, up she RISES, Way HEY, up she RISES.”

The rhythm of the song matched perfectly with the pull on the line.

With the sail high above us, we had such a sense of accomplishment. The crew quickly moved to tie it off. We moved down to the next mast.

“Up with the Peak!”

Now, we knew what to expect.

It was our first day on a weeklong windjammer trip in the Penobscot Bay. Two friends and I wanted an adventure, so in the depth of winter we decided to go sailing. We researched the options and chose the J&E Riggin out of Rockland, Maine.

The boat left the first week of June. The very first time the schooner was going out that summer. With only 8 passengers, we had no option to sit around, drinking coffee while others hauled away at the lines. We were the crew! We loved it. This is what we came for.

The trip was fantastic. I have fond memories of the smell of wood smoke from the stove in the galley; the taste of milky fish chowder eaten on the deck in the chilly air; the feel of the boat running in the wind, water rushing in the scuppers, with us hanging onto anything we could; going ashore to come out of the little store to be completely shrouded in fog, and eating lobsters and clams dumped from their seawater bath onto cold Maine island rocks.

I have gone windjamming many times since then on different boats in many different places. Any time there is a tall ship, I will be the first in line to buy tickets—all because of my experience raising sail the first week of June, 1983.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Window Watcher

A lively discussion of politics, with occasional asides on the folly of creating a résumé for a pre-schooler,  torture, homogeneous societies and 1984’s Big Brother were swirling around but I was no longer listening.  A movement in the tree outside of the dining room window had caught my eye.  I scanned the tree where I had seen the bird fly.  Sure that it was a Downy, I was looking for the familiar black and white.  It did not re-appear.  I took a sip of coffee and tuned back into the conversation.

It was one of those raw dreary gray winter days. The book group meeting last week had been postponed because of a snowstorm.   This week there was talk of an ice storm but we had come to Molly’s to talk about 1000 Splendid Suns anyway.

I looked out the window again checking for signs of precipitation.  At the first drop, I was prepared to bolt for the mountain in the hope of beating the storm. 

Again, I saw something.  I watched for it to come around from the backside of the tree, expecting to see the Downy Woodpecker.

“BROWN CREEPER!  There is a brown creeper.” 

Many of the women in my book group are also birders.  They jumped up and came around the table to look out the window too.  The small brown bark-colored bird obliged with a slow spiral up the tree and out onto a slanted branch.  Everyone had good looks.  

I am fond of Brown Creepers.  There was a time when I rarely saw them.  But living on the mountain I see them frequently, most often in winter, usually in the woods, and sometimes in my backyard.  I had never seen one in a suburban neighborhood.  It was not a life bird or even a year bird, but it was definitely a good bird for a raw day in winter.  

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Christmas cop-out ?

I used to think that giving a gift card was a cop-out.  For that matter, I used to think using the gift bag instead of the beautifully wrapped gift was a cop-out.  But NO MORE!

I have been migrating to the gift bag for a few years.  I had not noticed how far until I went for the Christmas wrap only to discover that I had NONE.  Absolutely none.  Not even a scrap.    There are bags of bows, piles of tissue paper in every hue and miscellaneous gift bags in random sizes but not the tiniest square of holiday wrapping paper anywhere.  I scrounged around in the library closet, where I keep all the wrap.  I riffled through the gift closet thinking I may have stashed it there.  I even went downstairs to the hall closet where I keep the paper shopping bags.   Nada.  

I wandered around the house perplexed.  Why was there no wrap?  As I passed through the kitchen, the phone rang.  It was my sister.  “Mom bought David a gift card to Walmart. It looks like everyone is getting a gift card this year, so we need to think about good stocking stuffers.”

Ah, the gift card.  Every store, restaurant, gas station, and supermarket has one.  There is even a display rack of cards at the local A&P.  It is convenient, less nerve-wracking and better than giving cash (the ultimate in cop-outs.)  I have finally embraced the gift card.  Let them buy what they want.  Let them spend their own money on gas.  Let me buy what I want.  For that matter buy me a gift card for gas.   And don’t bother wrapping it, just put it in a gift bag with a little tissue so I will be surprised.  


Monday, December 3, 2007

Comfort Food

A Throw-together Beef Barley Soup (with mushrooms, because I had them in the fridge.)

Chop up an onion (you can use half, I usually use the whole thing. I don’t like having all those forgotten onion halves living in baggies and cluttering up the fridge) brown it in canola oil. Meanwhile chop up 2 portobello mushroom caps and toss them in the pot too. Continue cooking on medium heat. You may need to add more oil. Check it. Stir occasionally.

Cut the beef into 1-2 inch chunks. (You can use whatever type of beef you want. I usually use London broil. I know, it’s wasteful, but I hate beef fat and all that nasty sinew.) Brown the beef.

Once everything is browned. Add 6 cups of water or beef broth. If you are using water (which I do all the time) add 1 beef bouillon cube for every cup of water. I put in 3 bay leaves, NO salt (you are getting it from the bouillon or broth) and about 1 cup of hearty dry red wine (I usually pour myself some at the same time.) While this is cooking, soak anywhere from 1/3 to ½ a bag of barley in 2 cups of water. (I like my soup thick, so I add a lot of barley.) You may want to skim off the ugly brown foam as the meat cooks.

After the soup cooks for about an hour (test the meat for tenderness) add the barley. Cook until the barley is done. This depends on how long you soaked the barley and the condition of the grain. It could be anywhere from ½ hour to an hour. The house should start to have a rich beefy smell. Carefully taste the soup. It is tastes lame; it could be the cut of meat, or the wine. Try adding black pepper and another glug of wine, it will perk up. If you think it needs salt, be careful, you can’t take it out.

I make this all the time. It is perfect for a snowy day.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Rotten Hippopotamus

Long ago in a fever-induced state I declared that the medicine I had been forced to swallow tasted like rotten hippopotamus. My little sister agreed. We called it RHM. Whatever that medicine was has been lost to time and childish memories. (I am not even sure why we had to take it.)

Sissy called to tell me she had a bad head cold, needed a nose mitten and generally felt it was an accomplishment to get out of bed and lie on the couch. I asked her if she had taken anything. She said she had tried something new. You are supposed to dissolve it in liquid and then lick the spoon. When I asked her how it was, she said it tasted like RHM. Ah, good old RHM. I have not thought of that for years and years.

You know those medicines that are so foul-tasting that you have to take them leaning over the sink because you are not sure if they will stay down? The one that comes to mind, for me, is Nyquil (the green one not the red one. The red one is RHM with a cherry overlay-far worse. I have broken a sweat just thinking about it. shudder.) DayQuil does not work for me. Neither does the stuff in the capsules. Plus they changed the original formula for Nyquil so not only does it taste like RHM it doesn’t work either.


I hope my immune system is up to snuff this year. Excuse me; I gotta go wash my hands, again.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Christmas Tree Compulsive

I can’t remember why I started to do theme trees. I supposed I thought everybody did. My mother collected angels as far back as I can remember; over time our Christmas tree became completely filled with angel ornaments. In High School my best friend’s family also did theme trees, but their theme changed from year to year, that intrigued me.

I would go into people’s house and look at their trees and try to guess the theme only to discover that there was no theme. Their ornaments were either handed-down over the years or purchased on sale after the holiday. Apparently having theme trees is unusual. But I love them.

I have a theme every year. I have done glass candy, birds, Great North Woods, winter, fish, only red bows, fruit and vegetables, gardening, cookies, ice storm, flowers, colors, friendship, international, Victorian, WWII, handmade, etc. I collect ornaments over time as I see them or they are on sale. I hold on to them until I have enough to pull together a theme. As you can image I have tubs and tubs of ornaments.

This year I am re-using my Winter Wonderland theme. (white lights, crocheted snowflakes, little felt mittens, sweaters, hats, snowmen, sleighs, snowshoes, skates, a few polar bears, and the tree-topper is a toboggan hat I bought in Alaska.)

How do you decorate your tree?