Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell is in My Kitchen

The ice cubes freeze quickly, too quickly. I don’t even have time to think what the ice was for…a martini (I don’t drink them), a Coke Zero (I don’t drink it), a single cube to chill my wife’s Chardonnay?  Now, that’s likely.  But one thing I can say…and this can be a warning to all who own a GE fridge…beware of the freezer compartment.  If you linger with the ice cream or dally with the frozen chicken fillets, then you risk the danger of loosing a digit or two from your right hand…if you’re right-handed.  If you’re a leftie, it really doesn’t really matter, you’re only 10% of the population anyway.

And, God forbid, don’t fumble for ice cubes with one hand while talking with someone…not paying attention!  My guess is that you’ll bring out your hand with three black fingers (not a real problem; they can be amputated for frostbite).  But then you’re left with less than five fingers on your right hand (lefties: scroll on) and that will make it a problem to prepare a brisket of beef of leg of lamb. One could become a vegetarian at this point, but the menu you have in your laptop drops by several degrees (no pun intended) and you have to find something simple to chop and dice…hopefully not a part of your missing finger.

But avoid the freezer! There must be places in NYC that can deliver ice cubes.  And if you buy something frozen from Fairway that is already frozen, move fast and wear protective garments.

This freezer is a killer.  It reminds me of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.  That’s where the sinners guilty of treachery, (think of Judas) are frozen in the lake of Cycytus.  I don’t see a lake in the top of the GE fridge, but I know it’s there.

I dread dinner parties.  I know that I’ll be asked to “get some ice cream” for dessert.  I dread that request.  First, I have to pull out the Ben & Jerry’s at least 45 minutes early.  That will give me an even chance of getting a dollop without bending the big spoon or breaking the ice cream scooper.  And they don’t even belong to us.  The other alternative is to put the ice cream into the microwave for maybe 15 minutes…to soften it to a consistency less than marble or granite.

But putting ice cream into a microwave somehow seems counter-intuitive.  No one asked for Baked Alaska.

I’ve learned several things in this sub-let apartment in NYC.

  • Don’t eat ice cream at home.
  • Wear thermonuclear gloves when searching for the frozen chicken or fish.
  • Beware of GE freezers.
  • Don’t get involved in treachery.

Consider yourself warned!  You can’t sue me because my lawyer is a very treacherous person.

[Image source: Google search. Art by Gustave Dore.]

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The True Cost of a 5 cent Root Beer Barrel

This post has nothing at all to do with Pop Tarts.  I just put the photo out on Instagram and Facebook so it was handy to use.  Pardon the deceptive lead-in but I had no photos of Root Beer Barrels to use.  I could have Googled for one, but it’s nearly dinner time…and my time is valuable.

In the distant years of my past life, back in 1956 for instance, I would pay 25 cents for a ticket to the matinée at the Tioga Theater in Owego, NY.  This stopped a year or two later when my mother (bless her heart) enrolled me in piano lessons that began at 2:00 pm…just down Main Street from the theater…where all my friends were about to enjoy a Hopalong Cassidy triple feature and at least a dozen Disney cartoons.

But, when I went to the matinée, my favorite treat was a 5 cent box of Root Beer Barrels.  You can still buy these…I think.

Those little brown nuggets of sugar and flavor were pure ambrosia to me.

Until I started to go to the dentist, Dr. Lee, whose office was about halfway from St. Patrick’s School (where I was in elementary school) to what was then Harvey’s Grocery Store (later to become Craig Phelps’ super popular “Everybody’s Country Store”).

Well, to make a very long story a little shorter, I started getting childhood cavities (I’m not sure they flouridated the water then.)

Dr. Lee didn’t believe in Novocaine.  I suffered the typical pains of a child of the 50’s in the dentist chair.

So, recently, I had two extractions at Mount Sinai Hospital here in NYC.  I began to reflect how many times I had those original cavities filled and refilled.  It must have been quite a few because I’m still getting cavities redone…and I haven’t had a Root Beer Barrel in decades.

I would estimate that my dental care has cost me or my insurance company several thousand dollars to repair the damages caused by a 5 cent box of little hard candies.

I no longer eat hard candy…it might chip a tooth.  I’m going over to Godiva’s.

Can’t hurt at this point in my life.  But I miss those little chunks of cheap candy and the flavor bursts of Root Beer.

I might even try a Pop Tart.

The Great And Silent Feast

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

yardleaves

Concentrate. Start over.

When I was a teacher I was often given the dubious privilege of “lunch duty”. A room, nearly the size of a gym, filled with 5th & 6th graders…or 9th & 10th graders and a hand full of teachers produced a noise level that made it impossible to carry on a conversation or to even think about the hour before you. Sometimes on days when I didn’t have duty, I would retreat to the faculty lunch room. Even there, teachers talked about the students, the administration or their Valium prescription. Still, no time to think.

As a last resort, I would take my tray to my empty homeroom and eat alone. It occurred to me that I would appear antisocial…but at least I could think.

Once, perhaps a decade or so ago, I found a guidebook to monasteries, close to our home in Manhattan, that opened their doors to travelers…like a B & B with stained glass. Mariam and I found one, run by the Episcopal church, on the western side of the Hudson River. It was a large estate-like building that sat high above the river in the Hudson Highlands. It happened that we booked our room on a “quiet” weekend.

No talking allowed.

During the meals, all I could hear was the clinking of forks and spoons on the china plates. A whisper here and there…but otherwise, silence.

I could think.

On October 7, Mariam and I with our friends took a walk on the Silver Lake Bog trail. The sky was azure. The foliage was at a peak. Brilliant reds, yellows, copper and scarlet leaves mixed with the green conifers.

pineneedles

[Even the conifers lose their leaves (needles) in the autumn]

I hung back and walked alone. I stopped to listen. The gently falling leaves sounded like a light rain. I looked around me and realized that I had walked into a grand feast, a forested restaurant, a silent meal.

And, I could think.

A gentle sense of melancholy overcame me…it’s that time of year that evokes death and endings and dormant life.

lichentree

[This once-living tree is now being consumed by dozens of organisms]

Nearly everything I looked at was in the process of dying…or already dead. What was alive was consuming what was dead. This was considered to be a fairly dry summer, but you would never have guessed that from that bog or our front yard.  I have seen more fungi this October that I can recall.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.  It is now well dog-eared.

fungusinyard

It was like watching “The Walking Dead” with the roles reversed. Of course I have lived a life-time of seeing this every autumn, but on that day, the Big Picture came into focus more clearly and gave me the urge to put all this into words. I was a witness to the Great Cycle of Life. I know it’s a cliché, but there it was, all around me. The ground itself was covered by a blanket of moss and lichen that were feeding and consuming the organic material. The dead logs, many cleared from the trail by a chainsaw, were helpless to resist the countless fungi, moss, bacteria and water that were breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

mossylog

[A dead log feeds a number of organisms]

And, all this was done in total silence and would continue even under three feet of snow and ice and temperatures of -37 degrees.

mossyground

[The ground cover of moss and lichen]

In six months, a small spore, a seed, a dormant larvae of a black fly would begin to revive and then bloom and the green would return.

Everything goes somewhere.  “Matter cannot be created or destroyed…it simply changes form”.  I think that’s Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics…but I could be wrong.  I stopped being a science teacher a decade ago.  Most things return in the spring.  Some things take a longer time…but sooner or later it all comes around again.

The exception, I hope, is lunch duty.

 

Kids Bottles: Another Moral Dilemma

kidsbottes

As I grow older, it seems to me, I am faced with some kind of moral choice nearly every day.  Then, I suppose that it’s something that’s true for every thinking person.

  • Should I watch Game of Thrones or search for the Vatican Channel on my Roku?
  • Should I continue to espouse the obvious truths of Creationism or trouble myself with science and facts by following the Theory of Evolution?
  • Should I be supporting Brad or Angelina?
  • Should I worry about the obviously faked data supporting Global Warming or continue to push for the Pipeline that will help a few zillionaires keep their children in elite private schools and screw up the environment for our children’s children?
  • Should I make an effort to feed a hungry family or contribute to a child’s dream of owning a bicycle?

Wait a minute!  That last bullet point sounds different…it sounds serious.  What’s going on here?

Several years ago, when I lived in New York City, I was faced with moral choices on every block.  We would be leaving a Chinese restaurant, discussing the dumplings, and then be confronted by a homeless man or woman.  I would dig in my pocket for a dollar or I would give them the left-overs I was carrying home.  With the number of street people growing constantly, there had to be a limit to my generosity.

Choices.

But, here in the North Country, one isn’t confronted by these daily dilemmas.  Unless you stopped to look around and see the trees in the forest.  Twelve miles from $6,000,000 vacation homes in and around Lake Placid there are people who live so far below the poverty line they are nearly out of sight.

My moral dilemma of late is the discovery of a sign along the Rainbow Lake Road, a mile from our home.  It is hand-painted and reads KIDS BOTTLES.  Back in Gabriels, by the main road, Route 86, are two small brown sheds.  A few years ago, these sheds were run by the local Girl Scout Troop.  People could drop off returnable bottles and cans…the money going to the Scouts.  The sheds would overflow.  Now, the money goes to the local food pantry.  The sheds still are usually filled.

I drink a fair amount of tonic water because I read that the quinine additive would help me with my painful leg cramps.  It seems to help…in a way…but it leaves me with several issues to resolve…

  • I could stand and feed the liter bottles into the big gray machine at Price Chopper in Lake Placid.  When the large plastic bag was empty, I would find Mariam and give her the ticket for $ .95.  Hardly helping our grocery bill (which would contain ten more bottles of tonic water and $2.50 for a copy of the New York Times).
  • I could take the easy way out and throw the bottles into our recycle bin (not really an option…it’s my nickel and I don’t want a nickel of mine in some account in Albany of deposits paid but not redeemed).
  • I could drop the bottles at the brown sheds in Gabriels, helping in a small way, to feed a local hungry family.
  • Or, I could stop at the hand-painted sign on Rainbow Lake Road and donate the few nickels to a family who were in the process of helping their child save for a new bicycle.

To many of you, my faithful readers, the choice may be clear in your mind already.  But, for me, it isn’t so clear.  Nothing in life is black or white…there are so many gray areas.  Of course, food is essential, but all the local grocery markets have food pantry boxes already.

The dilemma lies in the gray area of life.  Death by starvation is not something the North Country has experienced, at least as far as I know.

I hesitate with my bag of bottles.  Do I contribute to alleviating a large-scale problem of hunger or aid in the happiness of a child, who will someday own a bike?

I don’t have the answers…I only raise the questions that keep me awake at night.  How do I play out my role in the Social Contract?

Yesterday, I dropped my half-dozen bottles behind the chipboard hand-painted sign.  Remembering my own childhood and the pure innocent act of riding a bicycle.  I wanted to help the kid own a bike.  In a few weeks, I’ll probably drop my bag of returnables at the brown sheds.

Either way, someone loses and someone gains.  All I can do is alternate my actions with my conflicted conscious.

foodpantrybottles

 

 

The Existential Questions Of A Cactus

RedBarrelCactus

One afternoon in a desert full of Joshua trees…

A vulture makes lazy circles in the warm air, riding the thermals and keeping an eye on the slow-moving Bighorn sheep, hoping in his vulture heart that the animal was sick and would soon die in the maze of weathered rocks far below

A rattlesnake moved slowly between the shade of a split rock, keeping a close eye on a desert rat.  One quick strike was all he needed and a meal would be secure.

And, about twenty feet from a trail, a California Red Barrel cactus had an original  thought for the very first time…

I want to be touched, caressed…maybe even given a little water…maybe a little attention.  But, I know that can never be.  I’m aware of how I look.  I know I can hurt anything that comes too close.  I’ve seen others like me on the far hillside.  They’re never touched either.  No one dares come close because I have defenses that will severely injure anything trying to eat me.

Thorn

I have thorns that can measure seven inches.  My thorns are as unforgiving as the July heat or the lack of water on any given day.  I could probably kill anyone who approaches.  But, I can’t strike out and inject venom like a viper.  I can’t bite an artery to end the life of a mountain goat.  I am destined to stay where I sent down roots.  I am immobile.  I can only grow my slow way toward the blue sky.  I can’t do anything else.  My tender core of green flesh is protected by a nest of these thorns as sharp as anything can be.  The tip of my spike ends at nothing…it just ends, waiting to puncture a finger, a lip, a paw or a thin slice of flesh.

red barrel cactus

[Source: Wikipedia]

Which makes me wonder why I am here at all?  What is my role in life?  When I bloom in early summer, a few buds of my flowers may feed a small animal.  Beyond that, I am food for no living thing.  I simply take a little bit of moisture and a few minerals from the sand…and I just exist.  My purpose in existing is to protect myself.  I can’t do anything to attract a mate for reproduction.  The most I can contribute is to allow a desert rat to nibble on a tiny flower bud and pass my seed with its feces.  My seed will be deposited somewhere and my children will take root…never knowing their ancestors.

I see humans walk past me on the nearby trail.  Sometimes they are holding hands and then they stop and put their mouths together.  Sometimes, they walk well away from the trail and lay together.

Sometimes a human walks past me…alone.  I know what alone means.  I wonder if their aloneness is by choice or are they wondering what happened to the one they once loved and thought they were loved in return?

I wonder if I can ever be loved?  Why would any living thing love me…I who have put up so many defenses?

What’s there to love?  Can I be loved for just being?  Just existing?  Just being a part of a beautiful landscape?

For all my spines, sometimes I am the only color to be seen in a land of brown rocks.  Wait!  I can’t forget the intense blue sky above me.  And, I can’t forget the billions of stars at night.

I can’t forget the bright moon or the dust of the rock crystals I am rooted in.

I can’t forget the rare raindrops that land on me and are pierced through by my spines.

Maybe the drop of rain loves me and that’s how I get touched by something?

 

The Tomato Place And The Perfect Man List

TheTomatoPlace

This is the coldest night of our trip.  After complaining about the heat and humidity of Florida, we’re shivering in the chilly air a few miles south of Vicksburg…still alongside Highway 61.  My trusty thermometer tells me it’s 37 degrees just fifteen inches behind me and through the thin wall of the R-pod.  I push my new CD into the player.  I go straight to Track 6.  It’s Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s version of St. James Infirmary.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her

Wherever she may be

She can look this wide world over

But she’ll never find a sweet man like me…

I tear open the bag of boiled peanuts I just bought.  I finger out a half-dozen and break open the cold shells.  They’re better when they’re hot.

I put a thin fleece blanket over my shoulders and listen to the music.  I settle back in my fleece and think about the place where I just bought the boiled peanuts, the CD of Mississippi Blues, and a Blackberry Oatmeal cookie.    I also think about the felt fedora I nearly paid $35.00 (+ tax) for.

The store and small eating area is called The Tomato Place.  The outside looks like any vegetable stand.  The interior…well, it’s funky and folky and full of items to please the eye.

But, mostly I’m thinking of the young woman who stood behind the counter.  She was the daughter of the owner.  The owner is Luke.  His daughter, the woman behind the counter is Mallary and she told us she recently got married.  I couldn’t turn away from her eyes.  They were chocolate-brown and wondrously expressive.  She touched my arm.

Mallary

[Mallary is the daughter of the owner.  She had the “perfect man list”]

“You know what?  I put away my ‘perfect man list’ and I’ve never been happier,” she said.

“Good for you,” I said.

“I’d love to travel, like y’all, but you know what?  I get to stand here behind the counter and meet people like you and it’s almost like going on a trip,” she told us.

“Certainly saves on plane fares,” I said.

It was getting dark…we had seen the red globe of the sun sink into the flatlands of Louisiana, across the Big River.  It was time to go home.  Time to listen to some blues and eat some peanuts.

It was time to stop looking at the fedoras and the large (!) sacks of peanuts.  And, it was time to let Mallary help the next customer.

But, we had our dinner plans for Tuesday night.  Mallary makes a mean Tomato Pie.

I went back to The Tomato Place on Tuesday morning.  Mallory wasn’t in yet, so I spent a delightful hour chatting with Angela.  Meeting people like Angela and Mallary are a reminder of why I love to travel…and get off the Interstates…and discover little gems like this place.

Angela

[Angela serves a great mug of coffee and has an interesting life]

Where else would I get to see a 50 pound sack of peanuts?

50lbsPeanuts

Where else would I find an object d’art like this record bowl:

RecordBowl

[It’s The J. Geils Band “Bloodshot”]

Or a nutcracker that doesn’t look like a tin soldier?

NutCracker

I sat and read a book for a while in the back room of the dining area.  It was space that had an eclectic assortment of tables and chairs.  The walls were filled with jars of preserves, jams, packages of coffee and syrups.  Soft music played from small speakers.  I could actually think in this little space.  I could concentrate.  I could comprehend what I was reading. Sipping my coffee, I used the quiet to plan this posting and to think of more questions about the lives of these two young women that I met, purely by serendipity, in this little structure that looked as though it was a simple vegetable stand.

Some real treasures, real discoveries and some real people, with a gentle politeness and engaging smiles who willing share brief parts of their lives, are behind the doors that are the most unpretentious.

Day And Night At The County Fair–August, 2015

RidesNight

It was my third visit to the Franklin County Fair.  I came on Senior’s Night when the admission is a mere $2.00 for older gents like me.  It was crowded with North Country folks of all sizes, shapes, and ages.  Teenage girls clung to the arms of their ‘guy’.  Wounded vets were pushed in wheelchairs by their caregivers.  Old farmers, old as the fields they just hayed or plucked corn from, walked silently around with their silent wives.  This may well have been their fifty-sixth Fair…they’d seen it all.  Gone were the ‘girlie’ shows.  No need for the old men to finger a dollar in their overalls anymore.  No need for the wives to push them past the glittering enticing lights, while they looked back over their shoulders at the three strippers on a narrow stage.  No need for them to wonder about their faded beauty.  Gone were the freak shows in the tents on the margins of the midway, on the margins of the bright lights–the deformed and the odd lived out their lives on the edges of a society that stared into their world for a quarter.

No, the new County Fairs were squeaky clean, except for the rigged games where a guy could lose $17.00 throwing darts at balloons that wouldn’t pop.  Eventually, just to keep ’em coming back, the carny would let the guy win a Teddy bear worth $1.50.  The kid would promptly hand it to his sweetie…hoping it would help him rack up the points in her young heart.

popcornStand

I sat and ate a Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich that would test the limits of my immune system.  My friend wanted an ice cream…I wanted an ice cream too.  I paid $5.00 for a chocolate caramel mix in a small plastic container.  [I knew I had to stop eating anything more than a salad every two days for the next two weeks to lose the weight in time for my 50th high school reunion.]  Cotton candy stands were everywhere.  If you didn’t like Coke, you were out of luck.  As I stood eating my ice cream, I turned around to see a tent filled with South American clothing and jewelery.  A young man with bronze skin and black hair sat behind the counter playing the pan flute.  He was playing Let It Be.

Candyapples

The giant wheels of lights put you in a daze.  The mountains of cheap plastic toys (?) were everywhere.

Plasticstuff

I ducked inside the 4-H building.  There was a stand of real vegetables with ribbons.  Someone grew food on a farm somewhere nearby…and it won first place in a contest.  How do you judge yellow string beans?  What do you look for?  I pondered these things.  I bought a tee-shirt from the maple sugar booth that read: Big Or Small: We Tap Them All.  

BlueRibbons

The loud-speaker announced the start of the parade that was to pass in front of the grandstand.  I hurried to a spot by the fence to get a good look at the troop of DEC Forest Ranger Police who helped in the search for the two guys that broke out of Clinton County Correctional Facility in June.  The Dairy Queen went past me riding a small John Deere.  Her court followed on foot, their flip-flops kicking up dust in the dirt track.  The Queen looked straight at me and waved.  Boys and girls with fresh faces and neatly cut hair followed along with sheep, cows that needed milking, (the udders looked bloated to me) and goats, horses and pony or two.

DairyQueen

We found a seat in the bleachers and settled in for the Franklin County Has Talent Show.

CottonCandyGirl

A little ten-year-old in a white ankle length dress sang about having a broken heart.  She was standing in the spotlight’s glare.  Tiny and white.

GirlTalent

Girls danced to tunes I never heard.  A guy played a mean fiddle.  A teenager in a red dress that dragged the stage just above her bare feet sang beautifully.  Her song, “I’ve Got Nothing” came from her heart…one can tell when a singer means the words she vocalizes.  But, she is so young.  What does she know of love?  What mistakes has she made?  Can a fourteen-year-old heart really be broken?

I began to think back on my own life.  I was getting close to an answer when someone let go of a helium balloon about ten rows in front of me.  Even in the evening light, I could see the white sphere drift slowly up and hit the inside of the roof.  It bounced about in the breeze.  I saw several more.  One was blue.  Another red like the girl’s dress.

I looked back at the stage and thought about the brave little hearts that stood in bad lighting on a vast stage, in front of hundreds of strangers, and sang about your pain, or your joy or your dreams.  I could never muster the guts necessary when I was twelve to do what these kids were doing.

Risks.  They were taking a risk.  A dangerous risk.  They were risking their self-esteem.  I’ve had these same thoughts and wrote these same words two years ago–at the same County Fair.

I looked back up at the balloons.  When, I wondered, would they lose enough helium through the micro-pores of latex and begin to weigh more than the air that held them aloft?  I knew they would slowly fall like big wet snow flakes in the northern winter.  They would end up in the seats, snagged on a fence or on the ground being walked on and ground into the boards.  Sloppy bits of latex with a string and a bow attached.

Is this what will happen to the hearts of the girls and boys on stage, on this night in August, if they lose the competition?  Slow deflation, of a gas or an emotion, from a balloon or a fragile and tiny ego, can bring down the strongest of us all.

I sent out a ‘prayer’.  I hoped their dreams were made of a metal, yet unknown, that would carry their song, their heartbeats, their dreams and their hopes up, beyond the clouds and into the stratosphere.

My thoughts went back to the young man with the pan flute and the words:

Let It Be.