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Archive for June, 2009

Farmers’ Market

We have a wonderful Farmers’ Market here in my little town. It is open on the plaza every Saturday from late March to Thanksgiving. In addition to an abundance of fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, plants, honey, local meat, oysters, and angora fuzzy things, there is music and food. And the occasional fairy. The little old man I caught dancing is there every week. He is much more entertaining than the rather creepy “hairy guy” I often saw dancing last year.

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My favorite salad stand. Big bins of greens. This week I got a mix of arugula, watercress, and mache.

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The white salad turnips between the beets and the radishes are to die for.

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President McKinley presides over the market.

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Cha cha cha.

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He can really cover some ground with his cha cha shuffle.

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Dancing for his wife in the wheelchair.

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I’ve seen far stranger things than this on the plaza.

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Jugglers are commonplace.

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Great local bakery and cafe.

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My booty.

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They can be eccentric, slow afoot, even grouchy. But dogs live out their final days, says The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, with a humility and grace we all could learn from.

Not long before his death, Harry and I headed out for a walk that proved eventful. He was nearly 13, old for a big dog. Walks were no longer the slap-happy Iditarods of his youth, frenzies of purposeless pulling in which we would cast madly off in all directions, fighting for command. Nor were they the exuberant archaeological expeditions of his middle years, when every other tree or hydrant or blade of grass held tantalizing secrets about his neighbors. In his old age, Harry had transformed his walk into a simple process of elimination—a dutiful, utilitarian, head-down trudge. When finished, he would shuffle home to his ratty old bed, which graced our living room because Harry could no longer ascend the stairs. On these walks, Harry seemed oblivious to his surroundings, absorbed in the arduous responsibility of placing foot before foot before foot before foot. But this time, on the edge of a small urban park, he stopped to watch something. A man was throwing a Frisbee to his dog. The dog, about Harry’s size, was tracking the flight expertly, as Harry had once done, anticipating hooks and slices by watching the pitch and roll and yaw of the disc, as Harry had done, then catching it with a joyful, punctuating leap, as Harry had once done, too.

Harry sat. For 10 minutes, he watched the fling and catch, fling and catch, his face contented, his eyes alight, his tail a-twitch. Our walk
home was almost … jaunty.

Some years ago, The Washington Post invited readers to come up with a midlife list of goals for an underachiever. The first-runner-up prize went to: “Win the admiration of my dog.”

It’s no big deal to love a dog; they make it so easy for you. They find you brilliant, even if you are a witling. You fascinate them, even if you are as dull as a butter knife. They are fond of you, even if you are a genocidal maniac. Hitler loved his dogs, and they loved him.

Puppies are incomparably cute and incomparably entertaining, and, best of all, they smell exactly like puppies. At middle age, a dog has settled into the knuckleheaded matrix of behavior we find so appealing—his unquestioning loyalty, his irrepressible willingness to please, his infectious happiness. But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce. Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy, and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.

Kafka wrote that the meaning of life is that it ends. He meant that our lives are shaped and shaded by the existential terror of knowing that all is finite. This anxiety informs poetry, literature, the monuments we build, the wars we wage—all of it. Kafka was talking, of course, about people. Among animals, only humans are said to be self-aware enough to comprehend the passage of time and the grim truth of mortality. How, then, to explain old Harry at the edge of that park, gray and lame, just days from the end, experiencing what can only be called wistfulness and nostalgia? I have lived with eight dogs, watched six of them grow old and infirm with grace and dignity, and die with what seemed to be acceptance. I have seen old dogs grieve at the loss of their friends. I have come to believe that as they age, dogs comprehend the passage of time, and, if not the inevitability of death, certainly the relentlessness of the onset of their frailties. They understand that what’s gone is gone.

What dogs do not have is an abstract sense of fear, or a feeling of injustice or entitlement. They do not see themselves, as we do, as tragic heroes, battling ceaselessly against the merciless onslaught of time. Unlike us, old dogs lack the audacity to mythologize their lives. You’ve got to love them for that.

The product of a Kansas puppy mill, Harry was sold to us as a yellow Labrador retriever. I suppose it was technically true, but only in the sense that Tic Tacs are technically “food.” Harry’s lineage was suspect. He wasn’t the square-headed, elegant type of Labrador you can envision in the wilds of Canada hunting for ducks. He was the shape of a baked potato, with the color and luster of an interoffice envelope. You could envision him in the wilds of suburban Toledo, hunting for nuggets of dried food in a carpet.

His full name was Harry S Truman, and once he’d reached middle age, he had indeed developed the unassuming soul of a haberdasher. We sometimes called him Tru, which fit his loyalty but was in other ways a misnomer: Harry was a bit of an eccentric, a few bubbles off plumb. Though he had never experienced an electrical shock, whenever he encountered a wire on the floor—say, a power cord leading from a laptop to a wall socket—Harry would stop and refuse to proceed. To him, this barrier was as impassable as the Himalayas. He’d stand there, waiting for someone to move it. Also, he was afraid of wind.

While Harry lacked the wiliness and cunning of some dogs, I did watch one day as he figured out a basic principle of physics. He was playing with a water bottle in our backyard—it was one of those 5-gallon cylindrical plastic jugs from the top of a water cooler. At one point, it rolled down a hill, which surprised and delighted him. He retrieved it, brought it back up and tried to make it go down again. It wouldn’t. I watched him nudge it around until he discovered that for the bottle to roll, its long axis had to be perpendicular to the slope of the hill. You could see the understanding dawn on his face; it was Archimedes in his bath, Helen Keller at the water spigot.

That was probably the intellectual achievement of Harry’s life, tarnished only slightly by the fact that he spent the next two hours insipidly entranced, rolling the bottle down and hauling it back up. He did not come inside until it grew too dark for him to see.

I believe I know exactly when Harry became an old dog. He was about 9 years old. It happened at 10:15 on the evening of June 21, 2001, the day my family moved from the suburbs to the city. The move took longer than we’d anticipated. Inexcusably, Harry had been left alone in the vacated house—eerie, echoing, empty of furniture and of all belongings except Harry and his bed—for eight hours. When I arrived to pick him up, he was beyond frantic.

He met me at the door and embraced me around the waist in a way that is not immediately reconcilable with the musculature and skeleton of a dog’s front legs. I could not extricate myself from his grasp. We walked out of that house like a slow-dancing couple, and Harry did not let go until I opened the car door.

He wasn’t barking at me in reprimand, as he once might have done. He hadn’t fouled the house in spite. That night, Harry was simply scared and vulnerable, impossibly sweet and needy and grateful. He had lost something of himself, but he had gained something more touching and more valuable. He had entered old age.

In the year after our move, Harry began to age visibly, and he did it the way most dogs do. First his muzzle began to whiten, and then the white slowly crept backward to swallow his entire head. As he became more sedentary, he thickened a bit, too.

On walks, he would no longer bother to scout and circle for a place to relieve himself. He would simply do it in mid-plod, like a horse, leaving the difficult logistics of drive-by cleanup to me. Sometimes, while crossing a busy street, with cars whizzing by, he would plop down to scratch his ear. Sometimes, he would forget where he was and why he was there. To the amusement of passersby, I would have to hunker down beside him and say, “Harry, we’re on a walk, and we’re going home now. Home is this way, okay?” On these dutiful walks, Harry ignored almost everything he passed. The most notable exception was an old, barrel-chested female pit bull named Honey, whom he loved. This was surprising, both because other dogs had long ago ceased to interest Harry at all, and because even back when they did, Harry’s tastes were for the guys.

Still, when we met Honey on walks, Harry perked up. Honey was younger by five years and heartier by a mile, but she liked Harry and slowed her gait when he was around. They waddled together for blocks, eyes forward, hardly interacting but content in each other’s company. I will forever be grateful to Honey for sweetening Harry’s last days.

Some people who seem unmoved by the deaths of tens of thousands through war or natural disaster will nonetheless grieve inconsolably over the loss of the family dog. People who find this behavior distasteful are often the ones without pets. It is hard to understand, in the abstract, the degree to which a companion animal, particularly after a long life, becomes a part of you. I believe I’ve figured out what this is all about. It is not as noble as I’d like it to be, but it is not anything of which to be ashamed, either.

In our dogs, we see ourselves. Dogs exhibit almost all of our emotions; if you think a dog cannot register envy or pity or pride or melancholia, you have never lived with one for any length of time. What dogs lack is our ability to dissimulate. They wear their emotions nakedly, and so, in watching them, we see ourselves as we would be if we were stripped of posture and pretense. Their innocence is enormously appealing. When we watch a dog progress from puppy­hood to old age, we are watching our own lives in microcosm. Our dogs become old, frail, crotchety, and vulnerable, just as Grandma did, just as we surely will, come the day. When we grieve for them, we grieve for ourselves.

From the book Old Dogs, text by Gene Weingarten and Michael S. Williamson, based on a longer excerpt that originally appeared in The Washington Post. ©2008 by Gene Weingarten and Michael S. Williamson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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Bits and pieces

Things I found in Nehemiah’s stuff:

A note from him and my ex-husband that said:

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
We went to McDonald’s
And we’ll be home real soon

love, Joe and Nehemiah

And some of Nehemiah’s creative writing:

Part 1 The weirdest day of my life Nehemiah

One day I was eating some jellybeans when my mom called me to clean my room before she breaks her head on a blaster so I cleaned my room and after my room was done my mom told me to get my rat and put it back in his cage When I was doen I went back to eat my jellybeans When I got to where I left them they where gone then I ran outside and I saw my jellybeans walking off then one of them flew up and pushed the button that you are supposed to push when you cross the street I caut them before they crosed the street I brout them all back to my house When I got back I ate them all then when I went to my room my transformers were dacing my getoblaster was playing music I stoped the music and when I stoped the music my toys went back where I put them

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First tooth

I’ve been posting a lot of silly stuff and pretty pictures lately. It is part of my therapy. It also helps me deal with the hard stuff. Yesterday I forced myself to go through some of my son’s things, so that I can consolidate them all in one place. I found his baby silverware. I found lots of school papers. I found a journal. I found cards from him. And I found the first tooth he lost, which gave me my first chance to be the tooth fairy. I’m glad I saved it, as sad as it made me to hold it.

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Barbies go to field camp

I keep getting requests for more barbie pictures. When I was digging through my field camp pictures for the last post, I found a bunch of barbie pictures too. I have always taken my barbies to field camp. I was given my very first barbie at my own field camp by a friend who also likes to “play” with barbies. I still have that barbie, and she always goes to camp and on every road trip.

One of the field camp students loved the barbies. She would set them up in poses, ranging from orgies to beer guzzling to whitewater rafting. She built them several whitewater rafting boats out of plastic packaging material, duct tape, and beer cans.

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The amorous cook

My husband works for the Geology department here at the University in our town. We both graduated from that department. Before geology students graduate, they have to go to a 6-week field camp to apply all of the skills they learned in the classroom. I spent 9 years cooking for that field camp. It was a fun job, but tons of work, and you have to deal with all kinds of students, including some extremely annoying ones. I finally gave it up (actually gave it up several times but returned to do it again), for various reasons, including not being able to get another summer job after the 6 weeks was up, not wanting to leave my garden, having back troubles, tired of trying to please pick-bitchy-lazy-psycho-jerk students, and finally, not comfortable leaving my mother alone for 7 weeks.

Over the years, before I started cooking, during the years I didn’t cook, and this year after I retired again, the department has endured a succession of dubious cooks. There were a few good ones (thumbs up to Melanie), but mostly they were awful in a variety of ways.

The year before I started cooking, there was “Bill the Cook.” He is always in quotes because he rarely cooked. The students are supposed to help out, with rotating KP duty, but his list of what they were supposed to do was long, with him coming in at the last minute to warm something up. He also didn’t fix enough food. Geology students trudge around in the bushes 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, and they NEED lots of food. When I and a couple of geology friends showed up at the camp for a visit, we found starving, disgruntled students and no sign of the cook. We cooked while we were there. Later, we found out that the professor finally read the “cook” the riot act one morning when he had cold cereal listed as breakfast but had forgotten to get milk for it (town was 10 minutes away from camp). The professor literally dragged the cook out to a ditch to threaten him, after which he sullenly produced food at a slightly higher volume.

One year they hired a vegetarian to cook. When they hire a vegetarian, they inform that cook that he or she MUST provide meat. Well, she didn’t stick to that much, torturing the students with endless meals of beans. And she was mean. I’ve been known to be very territorial about my camp kitchen, but she totally outdid me. She did not allow the students to step inside the kitchen tent EVER, except during meal service. What a bitch.

Then there was Drew. Drew was another lazy cook. And a lousy cook. His biggest problem, aside from laziness, was a complete inability to cook potatoes. According to students, he never once managed to cook potatoes without them being burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. He also put a coating of soot and grease on the inside of the kitchen tent that took me two summers to remove. And a layer of burned on grease on the grill that took me forever to clean. And he put away the pressure cooker the department purchased without drying it, so that when I got it out the next year (I was excited because I’d never gotten to use one), it was pitted and ruined.

Kenrick was a good cook, but lazy about keeping the kitchen and equipment clean. The year after he cooked I again spent half the camp cleaning the tent, the grill, the pots and pans, etc.

The following year they got lucky with Melanie. She was a sweetheart. Hard working, creative with food, good natured, and tidy. I finally got to cook after somebody who left the kitchen and equipment clean and organized. Thank you, Melanie.

Then came “dirty underwear girl.” OMG. My husband was a TA for half of that camp, so I had to go out and pick him up. I was appalled (It got worse the second half of camp. I was seeing her “good” side). Her kitchen was a mess. Her pantry was a mess. She kept raw eggs unrefrigerated in the heat of Nevada summer. She constantly burned food and melted equipment. She broke things. She got her nickname the second half of camp, after a new professor took over from the one running camp the first half. The new professor was a party type, not professional about making sure his staff (and himself) was doing their job. So the cook got worse, much worse. She was a bit of a flirt and exhibitionist, and began wearing underwear as her cooking outfit. She would strut around in her outfit, but since her kitchen was so dirty and everything was always burned, the underwear and her exposed skin was always streaked with dirt and soot. She started having meals late all of the time, because she would go to the reservoir to swim and then show up at dinner time with that “hmmm, what should I cook?” attitude. The students were disgusted, but the professor just invited her to his trailer for another margarita party. Needless to say, both the professor and the cook were taken off the hire list.

So of course I had to clean up her mess the following year, my last year as cook. I fed the students lots of good wholesome food as usual, kept the kitchen and pantry spotless, and put everything away clean and organized for the next year’s cook.

Enter the amorous cook this year. The first report we got of her “activities” concerned a “list of particulars” the students presented to her in disgust. Apparently she wasn’t getting much cooking done because she had started a dalliance with one of the students. Because the cook isn’t involved with the students’ education at camp the way professors and TA’s are (don’t get me started about unprofessional amorous TA’s), it was no big deal if she did it on her own time, after doing her job. But that’s not what was happening. Instead, she was turning out late, skimpy meals because she was too busy doing the kissy kissy to bother doing her job.

Then last night, my husband sat down to watch tv with me and said, “Maybe next year we just won’t hire a cook.” I knew immediately that the amorous cook was still screwing up. I asked what the latest dirt on her was. He had talked to the professor that had just come back from his teaching stint and found out that the cook was down to one pot meals. As in a pot of beans for dinner. No salad. No bread. No dessert. Just a pot of beans.

What is it with these morons? I LOVED that job. I LOVED coming up with big meals. I made salad with every dinner. I made dessert at least 4 times a week. My students NEVER went hungry. It’s really not that hard to do that for 6 weeks.

I told my husband that the department and the manager had to take part of the blame because they never make the cook sign a contract and then hold that person to it. They PAY these people to screw up and screw the students. Until they enforce the job description and fire the cook, dock the cook’s pay, put in a contingency bonus and then deny it when the cook screws up, they are going to continue to have these problems. And they know I am really retired now. Not going back again. Thus my husband’s comment about not hiring a cook. He will probably be managing camp next year to give the regular manager a year off. He’s thinking about paying the TA’s extra and having them split the cooking duties. Good luck with that.

Kat cooking II

Kitchen II

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Cook in Pantry

Pantry

Kat cooking

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Kitchen IV

Kitchen tent

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Let them eat cake, updated again

I used to be a cake decorator long ago. I don’t do it much anymore, but occasionally I can be talked into it. Most of my cake pictures are print photos buried in some box in the closet, but I do have a couple of recent cakes in digital photo form. One is a cake I made for some friends’ 25th wedding anniversary. The other is a kooky cake I made for some other friends’ luau wedding reception.

Update: I just found some pictures of the luau cake in its unfinished state.

Second update: I added some pictures of the last birthday cake I made my son.

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