Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The right tools for the job

August came, and right on schedule, so did the tomatoes. We've been waiting for this. Our cupboards were bare. But dishpans full of tomatoes to can every third day can be daunting.

Through a serendipitous occurrence a few years ago, we were forced to turn on the old gas range in the basement - the one that came with the house, the one I never anticipated turning on. Our kitchen remodeling was supposed to be done well before August. Instead, the kitchen was torn up throughout the entire month. And tomatoes don't wait.

Fortunately, we had that old stove. Fortunately, it worked. Now I see that the old stove in the basement is perfect for the canning task. Far better than the solid surface electric range in my kitchen. Also perfect are the pans I inherited a few years ago from my mother who canned hundreds (I'm not exaggerating) of quarts and pints of produce every summer for 60 years.

I've canned a couple of dozen jars of tomatoes and salsa each summer over the years, but I've always cobbled the process together from my regular kitchen pans. It all worked but it wasn't easy. Not like using Mom's pans, which all miraculously seem to be exactly the right size and perfectly suited for every canning task.

So now when I start to carry tomatoes into the house, I also pull out Mom's pans. I marvel how much easier having the right tool for the task makes things. When I use her pans, I feel as though Mom is right there with me helping.

That old stove, those old pans, Mom and me. Canning again. It's all just right.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A dog named Butch

I've never been all that much of a dog person. Cats are my preference. But growing up on a farm, we always had a dog. For most of my years on the farm, that dog was Butch. And given how many pictures we have of Butch and me, it appears he hardly left my side!

A German Shepherd mix, Butch was a fierce protector of our farm and us kids, he was as good a cow dog as you could hope for, he was a member of our family.

Butch greeted every visitor to our farm a bark that kept them in their cars until Dad called him off. His bark may have been worse than his bite, but no stranger ever opted to check that out.

Though Butch was allowed in the house, he could only come as far as the kitchen. Not in the living room. Not in the bedrooms. When Dad went off to bed, Butch positioned himself at the kitchen door and waited there until Dad got up in the morning to go milk cows.

Like many dogs, Butch wasn't too fond of storms. When the thunder boomed and lightening lit the sky, Butch snuck into my folks' bedroom and lay down on the floor next to Dad's side of the bed. Dad never sent him away.

Butch was pretty much everywhere on the farm. He checked out the laundry when Mom was washing clothes in the basement. He went with us kids to get the cows up from the pasture. He raced along side our sleds when we shot down the hills in the winter. He wore a path from the house to the fence line where he ran each time one of us drove down the lane.

Butch was a good and faithful dog. Writing this blog reminds me of what a good friend Butch was and it lets me help other dogs who could be as good for a family as Butch was for ours.

From now until September 3, for every blog that mentions the Pedigree Foundation , the Foundation will donate 20 pounds of dog food to help feed the more than four million dogs that wind up in shelters and breed rescue organizations each year. The 'Write a Post Help a Dog" goal is to donate 10,000 lbs. of dog food from this blog effort.

If you have or had an important dog in your life, think about joining this campaign. Check out the rules here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What if it were me? Alzheimer's

Reporters say the sports world was rocked by the news that nationally known Tennessee coach Pat Summitt announced that she has early onset dementia - Alzheimer's.  I say any of us in our 50s and 60s may be rocked by that news.

When someone like Summitt has Alzheimer's, someone who is strong, resilient, used to winning? Someone like Summitt makes the disease even more real. She is on the national stage, and because she says she will continue to coach - even with more help from her assistants - we will watch as she loses to this horrible disease.

What would it be like to be her? What would it be like if it happened to me? I can't help but ask that. Maybe that's what we all ask.

I read a book that answers the question of what it would be like to have early onset Alzheimer's. "Still Alice" is written from the perspective of a university professor who learns she has the disease. Author Lisa Genova writes the book entirely from the perspective of Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor.

From the earliest recognizable problems of losing her Blackberry, to losing her way to her Harvard office, to losing her way around her own home. We see how Alice responds, how her family - husband and three children - respond, how her colleagues and students respond. We see her efforts to cope, to hang on.

As Alice deteriorates, I kept wondering when Genova would have to get out of Alice's head and switch to telling the story from the perspective of those who see it happen. She never does. We watch it all happen inside Alice. I felt what was happening to Alice as if it were happening to me.

"Still Alice" is real. It's raw. It's heartbreaking.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The first day of school - Did you picture it right?

Backpacks loaded with new supplies? Check. Just the right clothes? Check. Camera ready for the first-day-of-school  picture? Check. It may be one of the marks of good parenting to get that picture each year.

This year. Thirty years ago. Fifty years ago. It's all the same. My mom was religious in her zeal to capture my sisters and me before we headed off across the field to attend the first day of school at our country school. No doubt we looked better on that one day than we did on any other day of the year than, perhaps, Easter Sunday. Fresh haircuts or perms, new dresses, lunch boxes packed.

My own efforts to record my son's first days of school each year were less consistent.  In the picture I took one year, he has his backpack and is kneeling next to his cocker spaniel.  Barefoot. By the time I remembered to take the picture, it was the end of the day and I had to beg him to put his backpack on. Getting him into shoes again was out of the question.

It's funny that of all the school pictures I took of him, that's the one I remember most. That's often how memory works. We don't remember what happens a thousand times right. Rather, we remember what happens one time wrong. It's often the one time wrong that makes for the memorable story.

My nieces are now taking those first-day-of-school pictures of their kids. This year, one daughter holds up four fingers and the other holds up one finger, indicating fourth and first grades.  The pictures are great. I don't wish my nieces to be as forgetful as I was, but I do wish them pictures that bring up stories and and memories.

Happy first day of school!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Are indy bookstores the future?

Bestselling author Ann Patchett just announced that she and her business partner will open a bookstore in Green Hills, Tennessee. The area needs a bookstore, she says. Some will no doubt wonder if Patchett is nuts. I wonder if Patchett is part of a trend that marks the future for books and bookstores.

When Borders Bookstores closed earlier this year, citing the advent of e-readers, a changing publishing industry, and bad economy, we were once again left to ponder the future of traditional print books and bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

About the same time Borders shut its doors, I talked with Steven and Michelle Pritchard. They own Pritchard's Book Cafe, a small bookstore/coffee shop in Southridge Mall in Des Moines.  The Book Cafe is an eclectic blend of sandwiches, coffee named for authors, bookmarks handmade by Michelle, and, oh, books!  It's a friendly space, unique to its owners.

The Pritchards are moving to larger space this summer where they plan to cut down on the food side of their Cafe as they add more books.  In celebration of their new space, they were lining up authors (myself included) to come in for signings.

Owning a bookstore is a long-time dream for Michelle. So she and Steven are going for it. The Prichards are doing what entrepreneurs do - they follow their dreams and put their own unique stamp on the dream in the process.

Des Moines has other independent bookstores - Beaverdale Books owned by Alice Myers and The Book Store owned by John Heitzman.  Independent bookstores dot the Iowa landscape. Each unique, each reflecting the personality and taste of its owner.

I applaud each of these Indy bookstores for their dedication to books, service, and the entrepreneurial way of life. May book lovers find you and buy books from you. May you live long and prosper!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Great taste, no calories

The Iowa State Fair is all about the food, right? Food we eat and enjoy and then regret when we remember the calories?

Well, the Fair offers huge banquets to enjoy that contain not one single calorie. One of those is on the second floor of the Varied Industries building.

That's where Iowa quilters display the fruits of their labor over the past year. And it is one huge bounty. Even folded so that only a small portion of each quilt shows, the entries still extend from ceiling to floor, covering three walls of a large room. 

Each quilt is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the stitching all attest to the skill of so many dedicated quilters.  Each quilt, individually, is phenomenal. Grouped together, they create a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors.

A few photographs provide a taste of the variety on the plates of Iowa quilters. Here's a sample and you can enjoy them all with absolutely no calories!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kids, Cats, Cars & Politicians

The Iowa State Fair is all about ____________ (fill in the blank)

Everybody thinks of something when they go to the Fair. Food on a stick. The big boar. The Midway. Livestock judging. The Butter Cow. Quilts. Horses. Big name acts in the Grandstand. When we go to the Fair, we have our own list of 'must sees,' 

But in the course of a day walking around the fairgrounds, some of the most interesting things are the things we didn't set out to see.  The extremely serious little boy taking his first spin at throwing a pot while his enthusiastic, encouraging mother looks on. The art of sunlight through a large leaf in the Master Gardener's garden.  The spiderweb grill of an old Oliver in the classic car line up.

Of course, in a year like this, it's impossible to avoid your random politician. But the fun part of that is listening to the people watching the politicians. The politicians give parents an up close and personal moment to engage their children in a discussion of the political process.

The Fair gives me opportunities to learn something new about such random things.  I happened upon domestic cat judging this year. Judges look for overall condition and handleability. Cats, of course have minds of their own and when they're done being handled, they're gone. Often before the judge is finished.

The Fair is all about ... Everything. Anything. For sure, the Fair is all about fun.

Monday, August 15, 2011

100 years of buttery bovine beauty

Those of you who know me, know I'm all about the cows. I grew up on an Iowa dairy farm and spent 35 years promoting the dairy industry. So, this year's Iowa State Fair hits me in the heart with its tribute to 100 years of the butter cow.

Always an attraction, this year the butter cow is everywhere. One hundred decorated cow statues dot the fairgrounds. Since these statues are more calf sized than cow sized, they're not as easy to spot. And they're easy to tuck into places you might not expect them. Finding every cow and having my picture taken with every one would take more than one day at the fair.

The sand sculpture in the Cultural Center is gradually turning into a cow and calf beside a very large block of butter and an even larger butter knife.

As I write this, I realize I didn't take a picture of the actual butter cow even though I went to see it. Long lines filed past the butter cow, just as always. This year the butter cow pays tribute to Duffy Lyon who sculpted the butter cow for 46 years and who passed away this year. Standing beside the butter cow is a teenage Duffy holding a butterfly in her hand. Also in sculpture is a young version of Joe Lyon, her husband of 60 years.

I hope you make it to the Iowa State Fair this year. And while you're there, find a cow. Or 100. It's only fitting.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The resiliency of children

Francie Nolan grew up in an exceedingly poor Irish family in Brooklyn in the early 1900s.  Her story is chronicled in the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  Facing hours on the road recently, I picked this audio book off the library to keep me company. The 13 disks that make up the book held me spellbound.

Francie and her brother Neeley picked rags and scrounged tinfoil for pennies that went into the family savings - a tin can nailed to the floor of the closet. They played games like 'North Pole Explorer' that taught them to view the days when the family had no food to eat as an adventure.

In spite of serious hardship, the children grew up with an attitude of optimism and hope, in large part because of their parents. Their mother - who worked as a scrub woman cleaning tenement buildings - was committed to making sure her children had the education she didn't have herself, requiring them to read one page of the Bible and one page of the Complete Works of Shakespeare each day.  In spite of his shortcomings, their father, who died of chronic alcoholism and pneumonia when the children were 11 and 10, always made his children feel special and loved.

Revisiting this story, which I'd read many years ago, reminded me of just how resilient children can be. The children were not oblivious to their situation. They knew they were poor. They knew their father was a drunk. But their growing up experiences taught them pride as well as shame; made them resourceful and creative.

By the time Francie is 16, she and Neeley are referring to their childhoods as 'the good old days.' They lament that their sister who is only 3 will never know all the fun they had growing up in Brooklyn.

If you're looking to connect with a really good book, I encourage you to look to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And listen to the audio book if you can. The narration by Carrington MacDuffie, a recording artist and spoken word performer, brings life to every character who walks the streets of Brooklyn.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Climbing for supper

Check out this little guy!  We were watching TV and looked up to see this tree frog working his way up our picture window.  It was quite a hike for him. This window is a full two stories off the ground. 

My husband suggested he was up there catching bugs.  Quite likely.  Our family room lights cause flying insects to congregate.

The window gave us a great vantage point to see his suction cup toes in action. Even with suction cups, I thought he was brave to climb so high for his supper.

Monday, August 8, 2011

High Trestle Trail melds history, nature & easy biking

I biked the newly opened High Trestle Trail for the first time this weekend. My friends and I entered the  trail at Woodward and biked east. Our main goal was to see the new High Trestle bridge. We were not disappointed.

A converted railroad bridge, the High Trestle is a work of art and an unparallelled observation point, as well as a means of getting from Point A to Point B.

Standing 13 stories above the Des Moines River valley, the bridge provides expansive views in all directions. The river was largely within its banks this weekend, but the valley showed how wide it became during earlier season flooding. Hawks soared overhead. A little time and sharp eyes or a set of binoculars would have revealed many other birds.

Signage along the bridge explained the coal mining history of the area, a history that was also embodied in the artwork of the half-mile long bridge.   Dramatic girders at angles across the bridge represent the 'cribs' of coal mines.  The 42-foot tall towers that frame the east and west entrances to the bridge symbolize the river and coal veins in the area.

In addition to the bridge, the trail offered a lot to see. A deer stepped out of the trees 20 yards in front of us, stood at the side of the trail gazing at us and then bounded away. Butterflies flitted among the many wild flowers that brightened the path. And lots of trail users. People on bikes, on foot, pushing baby strollers, exploring caterpillars.

Though we began our ride at 3 p.m., we picked a pretty good day. Both heat and humidity were a (tiny) bit lower than a week ago. We enjoyed every bit of breeze that came our way. An ice cream break at a little stand in Madrid gave us a chance to refresh for the return ride.

We expect to return to the High Trestle Trail - maybe even at night when the bridge is lit. It's a great addition to the Iowa trail system.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vine ripened, ready to eat

Growing up on the farm, we had a big garden. Big enough to fill our fruit cellar and deep freeze. Enough to feed our family at every meal,  through the winter, until the garden gave up its bounty again the next year.

One thing we did not grow was melons, though we loved them dearly. Instead, we waited for Dillon Marlow to drive his truck down our lane. Every summer he came, the back of his pickup loaded with melons. And then did we feast! As much watermelon as we wanted, every day until it was gone.

He only brought us watermelon once a year. I never thought much about the fact that he only delivered melons once each summer until we began to grow melons on our acreage a few years ago.

We only plant one hill of cantaloupe and then we wait. We watch the vines branch out and the buds blossom. We watch the melons form and fill out, first green and then yellow. Then all of a sudden, they are ripe. Almost all of them. On the same day!

Of course there is no way for just two of us to eat so many melons, though lord knows we give it our best shot. There is nothing so sweet, so tasty, as a vine-ripened melon. For a week we eat like royalty and share our largesse with friends.

This year, today is the day for melon. I brought in six melons. Several others will ripen over the next week. But then they'll be done for the year.  Unlike other produce, melons don't preserve well. Melon is one of those fruits it's best to eat fresh.

When I carried all the melons into the house today, I thought of my neighbor who came with his truck just once a summer. All of his melons vine ripened and ready eat. At the same time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Algae bloom art

I joined friends for a walk along the bike trail north of Johnston over the weekend. We went early in an unsuccessful effort to beat the heat and humidity. At 7:30 a.m., the sun was still low in the sky, throwing long shadows across the trail.

The trail was an excuse for a walk and talk. More interested in talking than sightseeing, we were totally unprepared to be stopped in our tracks by the algae bloom covering the lake and back water on both sides of the trail.

An algae bloom may be caused by many things and often the reasons and the results aren't positive. I don't know what caused this one, but the result was art.

The green and yellow colors were brilliant. The shadows dramatic. The result of this algae bloom was a scene reminiscent of a Pixar-produced wonderland. The colors changed from green to yellow to silver depending on the angle of sun. The surface appeared to be glass or ice or velvet. The photographic results were exciting color contrasted with subtle black and white. Both dramatic.

Maybe we're not supposed to like algae blooms, but it would be impossible not to enjoy the art nature used the algae to create.