Friday, February 28, 2014

Heading Home

It wasn't in me to drive home last night, after the last few days, but I'm doing so now.  I'm working from home for a bit, leaving the field work to my team while I tackle some stuff involving paper and big words.  It's necessary work, if not particularly fun, but something I can focus on right now. 

My local LEO neighbor, with whom I share a wall and a driveway, will keep good eye on the crash pad, even as he will so miss the bark bark bark "Mom's home!", that lets he and his family know I made it in safe.

But I need to be home, with Partner, even if it will be a long drive with only a box of Barkley things in the back seat of the truck for company.

Backup is good, but I miss the furry kind

Til later, my friends.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Things I've Learned from a Black Lab - The Tail Continues


Trust is not that which binds, but that which bonds.
 - Brigid

I just wanted to drop everyone that commented, called, or emailed me with your condolences, a note of thanks.  There is no way I can respond to all of you individually right now through the tears, but I read every single one, multiple times, even if it made me grieve harder.  For you shared with me your joys and your own pain, with loving and losing your own pets. 
 
There were still so many stories to be told, he was much too young to have left.  Right now, I'm just hollow, and cold, I just can't get warm and this place is just so quiet without him.  But I know this will pass.  But in thinking it over the last couple days as I have been alone at home, I realized that I  want to continue to tell those stories when I can, so many not put to paper   I'm thinking it's time for a book, the Book of Barkley.  It won't be next week or even next month, but as I can write again, it will be crafted, so that we can all heal, and hope
 
It will mean no daily blogging, just a few times a week.  But for his memory, for myself, I think I need to put more of our story down, as it will never be truly over
Love - Brigid

Monday, February 24, 2014

Barkley

 Barkley
July 12, 2003 - February 24, 2014

There is no easy way to write this, but Barkley is gone.  It was bone cancer, advanced, and the best of care and all the ramps in the world couldn't keep him free from pain any longer, a feeling that was articulated in his eyes, and not just his movements as he tried to play and could not. 

No more pain, no regrets  Everything I give him, he gave me back ten fold, listening to me chat away about my day, things that by my oath of duty, I couldn't tell anyone else.  He was my black knight with wagging tail, the fur covered Kleenex when I cried. He was the finder of slippers and the keeper of hearts.

He was a dog, but he was much more than a dog. 

He was  support, he was patience. He was the promise that even with the worst mistakes, he still loved me. He was that fire that cauterized me against loneliness and fear, the thump of his tail like the sound of a heart in the womb, creature comfort there in the dark and unknown.  He became the unevictable place in a heart so bruised, it had pushed everyone harshly away that got too close, teaching me to trust again. With that trust, I found my heart's twin, who happily became his family as well.
As family, we take care of each other.   Having a pet is a commitment just as is any bond, either visible or invisible with another living creature, is. It's not just being a good friend during the good times, it's being a friend during surgery, explosive doggrhea, and that pile of vomit in the corner on the one square of carpet that wasn't protected by a cheap throw rug.

You do what you can to help them during those scary, shadowed times, with tender, soothing words. You don't  lay your hand upon them with forceful curse and belittlement. They look at you to be the strong one, the better one, even if it's difficult to do. They trust you to act from your heart and not from the infinite, internal voices of human fear and angst.
They pay it back in ways that can't be captured, but by the measured beat of a tail.  On those nights when you come home really, really late from work, your soul weary, the house dark, they will quietly come up to you, leaning into you, drawn from their slumber to your side like steel and magnet.  At that moment, there as both your hearts beat in the silence, you realize that every measure of sickness and health was worth it.

For there is  great measure of trust and love contained in that warm web of bone and fur, the eyes that can commandeer your pancakes and the tail that wags for you as if you were the only person on the planet for them, and maybe you are.
Their time is so short, indeed, but that doesn't mean you should not love. In "people" years, Barkley was probably sixty something.  But they were years condensed down into their core elements, as if a simple ordinary succession of days were not enough, as if the love and all of that faithfulness, the freedom of the field, and the tug of a leash towards the horizon were compressed down into something as hard and brilliant as diamond. Everything, every single element of so many long days is there in that short span of time, compounded into that one leap, one surge, towards the lights of a vehicle in the drive, one joyous bark that contains within it simply "My person is home!"
He cared nothing about what kind of house we had, how I looked or how much money was in the bank.  All he cared about was how to bequeath that for which sustained him,  in his too short life, his faith and his love, as he patiently waited for my return.

When he greeted me, he seemed to know when I just needed to sit in the quiet.  He seemed to know when I wanted to play.  And play he would.  If there was a ball to be thrown, he would abandon all restraint and gave every fiber of himself, to reach that for which was before, only a dream; unmitigated glory.  His life was not deadlines, or deals or caring about the things that in all reality, will not matter at the end of a life.  His life was simply a joyous run ahead of that avalanche of time that would be his enemy had he any concept of it.

But time caught up with him, forcing a decision that I hoped wouldn't have to be made. But meds couldn't keep the pain at bay and amputation and chemo were only going to buy a  short, short amount of time, at the expense of his comfort. I could not in good conscious make him go through that, for there was no cure, only a continuation of pain. So I was there, by his side, not passing on the burden solely to someone in a white lab coat, loving and caring, but not his "Mom".  Although he never formally took an oath, paw placed upon a revered document, flag on the wall, an oath was taken.  When he came home with me as a  puppy, he swore his life to serve and protect.  That was his duty, as it is mine.

He had medication to take the pain away, a big bowl of  food that wasn't kibble, and all the treats he could happily gobble down. There was no fear in him, no pain, no anxiety.  Dad and Mom said goodbye as I placed my cool hand on his warm flank and talked to him down at floor level, in all those murmured words that meant something only to us. Where else could I be but to just be there as the needle quietly slipped in and he was free from all burden, one surge, one leap towards the light so easily and joyously, so as to lose all sense of restraint, weightless upon the warm, invisible air.  He was free, the pain of bone and flesh departed, only one long, joyous, soundless bark as he went Home to wait by the Rainbow Bridge until we can catch up.
He was more than a dog.  He was love that crept in on four paws and remains, as long as  memory lasts.
- Brigid

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fire Up the Fry Pan - Stroganoff Burgers

With the never ending winter, we've all missed grilling burgers.  But frying them by themselves with the usual toppings seemed about as dull as the weather has been.

I have onion, a dab of sour cream, burger, the remnants of a loaf of  sourdough bread and some canned mushrooms.

Sourdough Stroganoff Burgers!

Mix:
1 lb burger
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
salt
pepper
a shake of garlic or onion salt

Form into 3-4 patties, making an indention in the middle so they don't puff up as they cook

In a fry pan, sauté in 1 Tablespoon olive oil and 2 Tablespoons of butter:

3/4 sweet onion (or half of a extra large one)
1 generous teaspoon minced garlic

While that softens on the stove top on medium:
Stir 1 teaspoon of  Penzey's beef base into 1 cup boiling water (or use 1 and 1/4 cup of canned soup broth).

Cool slightly and add:
1/4 teaspoon plus a pinch dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon plus a pinch dried sage
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or smoked paprika)
Several grinds of cracked pepper and a dash of salt
Add a small can of drained mushroom pieces to the onion mixture, and give it a stir

Prepare a few onion rings, one or two per person  (I had a few leftover from a bag of frozen that I just quickly baked).  Turn heat off oven and keep onion rings in there with door ajar to keep warm.

Cook burgers in another fry pan until medium, remove and place in pan in oven to keep warm.

Deglaze beef  fry pan with a generous splash of white wine, add sautéed onion mix from the other pan.  (Deglazing cook with remaining white wine is optional).

On medium heat, sprinkle in 4 teaspoons of flour (1 TBSP plus 1 tsp) and stir on medium heat, until flour and oil makes a paste.  Drizzle in broth mixture, stirring or whisking constantly, bring to a low boil and cook until thickened, as you continue to stir

Remove gravy from heat and add 1/4 cup sour cream.

Toast sourdough bread VERY lightly, just until crisp.  Top with a burger, mushroom gravy, an onion ring or two and a sprinkle of dried chives (or parsley). We ate them opened faced, with knife and fork.  Yum!

It sounds like a lot of work, but in addition to being quite inexpensive (with bits and pieces of leftovers and spices bought in bulk) it was all quite easy and it got two enthusiastic thumbs up from one hungry guy.

Why You Shouldn't Give the Keys to Your New Car To a Whovian

They'll just Doctor it up.
 
Partner should have known not to give me the keys to the new Escape (replacement for the old Exploder).


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Desire in .357 - The Colt Python

What is desire but a shadow that shades the edges of everything you touch. It starts as just a slumbering thought, there at the edge of your night, then soon stirs, waking. You can ignore it, but like a dog long cooped up, soon it will begin to howl, and you have no choice but to let it free.

Have you ever wanted something so bad you could almost feel it? As a kid, it might have been that first bike, in high school, a car, something, a want so deep and burning it was almost outside your consciousness.

Myself, what comes to mind is not such things, simple trinkets or jewels that glimmer in the light.

It was a Colt Python, and I wanted it so badly I could taste the recoil. It wasn't a feeling I was used to, after years of calm, speculative detachment to choices made, willing myself not to feel for what I would not have again. I had been doing fine, until I saw it, and just that once, ever so briefly, held it.


My non shooty friends said "you could get a huge, new TV for that cost!" My shooty friends said "damn, I want one". Some of both said "but that's old, don't you want something new and high tech?" No, I didn't. I had a little plastic gun with all the personality of a Pez Dispenser. I wanted something that had seen some years, as I had. A firearm that had discharged its duty, the marks of use etched on its frame like forgotten words, an indictment of danger faced. I desired not that which was fresh and unspoiled, but that which had seen those griefs and shames with which hearts much less strong, would have strained and burst into unremembered dust.

Keep your new Glock, I wanted a gun that had seen a battle or two, and won.


The gun store owner let me put it on lay away. I was a regular and they knew I was reliable. I'd come by every couple of weeks with a few hundred more to put down on it, taking it out of the case just briefly to say hello, stroking the dark blueing, the profound dark deep of the sea, a dense darkness in which even the light of the sun could not give color. Just a couple more weeks, and it would be mine.

It sounds silly, doesn't it, in retrospect, to be a slave to an object, something that's purchased with gold, like any other object, something for which your only toil was that toil you give anyway. But at the time, having lost most everything I had, it was a symbol of more than a firearm. It was a symbol of possessing something that no one could take from me, that I alone would be responsible for, not subjugating my responsibilities by default to others that did not care. It was going to be MY Colt, and if it shot every weekend or just stayed in the safe, it was mine to do with as I wanted, knowing in return, with care, I could always rely on it.

 It was freedom with a .357. It was desire with the full capacity one is capable of, a measure of worth far exceeding the coins that enacted its transaction. It was so beyond "worth it", its weight in my hand beyond the proportion of its convertible value. Those that didn't shoot shook their heads at me like I was mad, those that did, only nodded in silent agreement as I waited to pick it up and transport it home, like a new parent.

I still enjoyed my little .22 but like Charlie Brown said "nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter like unrequited love". I could not WAIT to hold that Colt in my hand and squeeze the trigger for the first time. I lay motionless in my bed at night, legs straight and close, thoughts of how it would feel framed there in the rich sprawl of red hair. I started "nesting" a week before I even brought it home, buying the right accessories, making sure it had a safe place to sleep.
And just a few weeks later it was mine. They say with desire, that sometimes when requited, it loses its luster, that once you're held it in your hands, your interest wanes. You hold it a while, you drive it a while, and soon you're looking on to the next great dream. But sometimes once you've held it, everything else pales in comparison.

Finally, I held it, taking in the deep blued finish that seemed to hold all reluctant light and breath, feeling the weight in my hand. Then I simply stepped up and fired it. A single shot, in which a lifetime lay behind me. A single shot, upon the bare and pock marked wall, the shadow of its form shuddered in what was not the wind, but my own trepidations, until holding it steady, I squeezed the trigger with one intake of virgin breath. In that moment, in the rich, trembling roar of its power, the trepidation fell behind and I knew that this would be one desire that would stay with me always. "They" don't' have a clue, I thought, as the sounds of everything I had every shot came in that single converging noise that was the .357, spoiling me for anything else.
It was more than I'd ever operated, but not more than I could handle. A good instructor, some targets and practice to be safe and I felt like I'd owned it for years, even if my shot placement spoke otherwise for a while.

I went back to the .22 for practice and plinking, as always a cheap shot placement tool, but against the Colt, its firing seemed like frail whimperings, and it just didn't seem the same. I was hooked on the recoil, on the bore. I learned about blueing about cleaning, and about gathering brass. I shared it at the range with others that wanted to try it, like a proud parent saying "see, look at the newest member of the family".

But it wasn't the Colt, it was me. I'd gone from a timid beginner playing grown up, picking something up and putting it away, then running on home for someone else to clean up, to being a shooter. One who owned my own equipment and cared for it. One of many that were at the range alone every Saturday morning, come rain or snow. I'd not really grown into the weapon, I'd simply grown into myself.

Months passed, and with career changes and moves, the weekly shooting became a thing of the past, and the Colt was only taken out to play every couple of months. It wasn't that I'd lost interest, there was just so little time, for anything but work and tending to elderly parents, a home and life in a suitcase.

Then the day came when I had a family member in need of money for university. Even with a full time summer job and scholarships, there just wasn't quite enough, I had my own debts, and couldn't do much, I just needed a little cash to help her out.

I sold the Colt. It wasn't much, but it would pay for books and such for the rest of the year and allow them to graduate. A Colt is history, but so are our children.

It wasn't the best decision, but one at the time that I  felt needed to be made. So I sold it to someone I knew for top dollar, knowing even as I released it that I already regretted it. Already missed the clarity of its touch, the roar of its might, that smell of spent longing that rises like a cloud of signal smoke; that feeling even as I handed it over, that I was letting something good slip out of my hands, not likely to be reclaimed.

Years pass, and then it's there again. A friend with a Python that asked if I wanted to shoot it at the range.  There it was again,  a look, a touch.

What is it about desire, that follows us when our guard is down. that longing fire tinged with the sadness of loss. It never really goes away, and I pray it never does

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night:


SUDDENLY A SHOT GLASS RANG OUT. . .

Why is it the bat phone doesn't ring for several weeks and then, when it does, it's non stop.  Til I get a chance to take a long break, a saved recipe and later this week, an updated review of the Colt Python.

Bacon Infused Bourbon - don't light a match near me when I'm making it, but something involving breakfast food for supper sounds good right now (as opposed to the High Protein Prest-o-Log meal replacement).  I saw the idea in Southern Living magazine and just had to try it on cold day this winter.

Fry up a few pieces of  applewood smoked baconPour off grease (you want about 1/4 cup) into a clean glass.

Remove 4 Tablespoons of  good quality bourbon from a 750 m.l. bottle.  (Save the remainder  for medicinal purposes.) I used Knob Creek.


Pour 4 Tablespoons WARM  bacon grease into the bottle.  Cover and let stand four hours, shaking bottle every once in a while. 

Place in fridge for up to week (no more, but at least 3 days).

Place an unbleached coffee filter in a wire mesh strainer (the unbleached ones do make a difference in taste of your favorite drinks). 

Pour bourbon through filter into a container.  Discard filter (well that's their directions, I was actually thinking it could replace the little cardboard tree air freshener in the truck.  No, better not).

Thoroughly wash and air dry the bourbon bottle (with soap and very hot water).

Pour the strained bourbon back into clean bourbon bottle and store at room temperature.

Should keep 4-6 months.  In addition to sipping, it makes a killer addition to some sausage gravy for biscuits.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Small Towns - A Short Story That Became a Book

It started as a shorty story and became the opening chapter of "Saving Grace" with a few tweaks and edits.

For those of you that have followed this story of many years - thank  you,
--------------------------------

She would not have noticed the town that first time, but for the speed trap.  It was a two lane shortcut to the interstate heading North, a sign that says 50 mph and then almost immediately after, one that says 35 mph, as the first building just seems to pop up from the flat landscape like a diorama.  It's not a route normally driven, but with an accident backing up the freeway around the city, this made for a good detour.

There were only a few buildings, a church, a small fire station, a half dozen very old homes, a couple kept in pristine condition, the rest having given up on curb appeal.  There's not much in the way of business, though at some point this was a tiny little hub of activity in this land that was more farm than subdivisions.  There's  a pizza store and two antique/craft kind of places, colorful wares on display in the hopes that someone will make a stop.  Normally she would enjoy such places, enjoying the work of things made with one's own hands, the patina that is polished wood.  But one of those is now closed, replaced by a store that sells decorative yard things, all cheap and likely made in China, the other with a closed sign that only draws in the dust. Given the severe cold this winter, what little business they had has likely stayed indoors.
Today was no different. The air is cold. Clear. Sharp. Cutting as a knife to the landscape, flayed and laid bare to the eye under the surgical light of a winter morning. It's hard to believe that just 5 miles south is a bustling community of subdivisions and quickly constructed strip malls.  On this road, in the hesitation that is the slow passage through this community, it could easily be 75 years ago, the structures unchanged, only more weathered. Behind are fields that clutch onto the skeletons of crops that long ago died, miles of bare, windswept trees, and clusters of burrs that stick to everything with a tiny pinprick of pain. It's a once pretty place that is sticking to the landscape as hard as it can, soon to be pulled free with that final stab of cold hurt.

At 10 below windchill and an obligation to keep,  it's another day she does not stop.  It's not lost on her that it's yet another nail in the coffin of what is left of those businesses.
The cold restricts movement, as it propels it, pushing us towards something that will warm us.  The cold, like life, only accentuating that which we can not sustain. You move forward or you will die.

Given the amount of traffic on this road and the widening of it further on, it's not hard to imagine that soon this town will be gone, the majority of the few buildings so close to the road, but for the church a couple homes with a large yard between house that road, that widening the road to four lanes will be their inevitable end. The for sale signs on the remaining well kept houses is a sign too obvious, the town not having a failure, but a mutiny. The few other houses look as if they are just waiting for someone to show up with a check and a bulldozer, if not abandoned already, sidewalks raised and broken, trash gathering in the cracks like autumn leaves, an old Ford with no engine, guarding the front lawn against postmen and tax collectors.

As she passes that last for sale sign, she can't imagine selling her home, knowing that it will be razed. Even harder is having to walk away from one, simply to save your life.

She had married too young into a Southern Family, who considered themselves as such, even though they lived in what the rest of the country called the Midwest.  I guess it depends on which direction you looked at things, she reckoned, our individual horizons incised in whetted contrast to the circumference of this flat, harsh landscape.
Weather wasn't the only thing that was new to her, coming here from California. But it is what she learned, and quickly.  She learned what was safe to stay out in, and what was not, learning early we are just serfs of the elements, severe weather usually arriving in the late night like a broken king, rushing in, ready to do battle with the sleeping.

The family had a few hardscrabble acres on which rocks were the preferred crop, as well as a growing herd of cattle. It was a small farm, one which wouldn't have sustained them had she not held other jobs. Friends would tell her how lucky she was to have the land and the freedom and and she was.  But she realized that in actuality, it's like having two full time jobs, 7 days a week. Add to that family, dogs, cats, an old horse named Elmer and a husband on a medical discharge from the military battling his demons, she couldn't remember a day from that time where she just wasn't tired.

As 30 years in the future, the radio announcer comes on with a "remember this classic from the 80's?" She turns the dial up on the sound, to listen. And she doesn't. Remember. Those years to her were sweat and work, the smell of cow manure, weekend JP4, propane, and the salt of tears; moments of roses and moment of thorns being of equal duration, passing too quickly in recollection.  Looking in the mirror she sees the small lines that indicate her age but she doesn't feel it, it's as if that whole 10 years happened to someone else, endless, alternating days and nights like a vacuum in which no air would come.
Given the choice, would she have taken that time back? Perhaps not, she thinks. We do not cease from the experiences, in the end of experience we arrive back where we started, seeing them as if for the first time, but at a nice safe distance, with wisdom otherwise not gained. It was a time to grow, to learn, to build. She learned how to fix a furnace, and pull a calf from her mother, how to make supper out of almost nothing, the household money squandered on chasing something no one could provide even as she  pulled down her shirtsleeves to hide the bruises. She learned how to hold her head up high in a small town buzzing over the gossip that came with that. And she  learned when to walk away when the demons finally won.

She recalls one of the last nights there, the Carthart coat and boots she wears today, no different than the ones she looked for that night as the glare of the headlights illuminated the room, It was a cattle truck coming at night so as to reach the stockyards in the morning. She had woken alone to the rattle coming up the road, trying to get a little nap before they arrive, springing like a bow from her bed, aware of her responsibilities. As she donned work clothes and boots, the orange running lights and diesel growl outside of the  window reminded her of martians landing searching the house for signs of human life and the first smile in a long time passed her lips.

All they would find is a lone woman, with boots, a shotgun she knew how to use, and a kitchen that once smelled of cinnamon.
The driver backs around, turning the trailer with a gentle sigh of air brakes, up to the wooden chute there at the barn. Within came the muffled grunt of the cattle that were being sold. Outside of the lumbering truck and its driver and the cattle, they were alone. No cars, no help, the earth hanging suspending in space, cooling, wearing only a thin veil of woodsmoke. The wind cut her face, a blade that only stroked the skin, not cutting it, her hands aching as she stroked her thighs with them, trying to stir warmth back into dormant skin.

Oh, how she longed to just go back to bed, the rustle of cotton, the panting whisper of breath, the predation of the night assuming a hundred avatars of dreams. No cows, no work, simply the house, still and quiet, as if marooned in space by the dwindling of day. The truck long gone, the sounds outside fallen to a low fragmentary pitch. A coyote's howl at the indignation of clouds that cover the moon, no other sound made; prey gone into hiding, insects dead with cold, everything else assuming their own mantle of hibernation or predation.
But there was work to be done.

Hooves rattled in the trailer as it rocked and swayed, cattle moving with the chaos of their own confusion. All that was left was one lone cow, a young one who would go to a neighbor's farm for breeding stock. She stood forlorn in the fog of her own shadow, form turning as insubstantial as mist. She gazed at her as if she knew what was happening, looking at me with that ample, benign abstruseness of cattle or of gods, before turning and vanishing into space.

It's hard to decide which ones to keep and which to let go. Love, life and longing, a helix viewed by eyes that see with hesitant, hungry fire. Decisions. We took from the land that which we needed to survive, giving something back, yet there is still in me that sense of loss, even as she knew it was inevitable, as are so many inevitable things.

The door on the cattle truck closes with a profound finality, isolating them, isolating her, as she watched it drive off. All that is left is to go back into an empty house to curl up in the guest room, the neatly made bed in the master bedroom a paradox within four walls redolent of long abandoned warmth.
The land went to his family, their little farmhouse to be sold, tools replaced by others which would draw their own blood as she learned to live again, amidst hard work, but work that was her calling.  She couldn't bear to watch as it was cleaned and made ready for sale, sun shining in on polished floors as undisturbed as frigid pools, underneath the overhanging branches of shrouded furniture. When she left, she took just one thing with her, to carry in her vehicle as a reminder.

She still works too often out in the cold, and there are still many nights where she only get only a few hours of sleep before going back on duty, watching the world come into a caffeine induced clarity that does not bode well for the sandman. Nights, where she's not woken by the sound of cattle trucks, but by a phone, a voice on the other end speaking with an impersonal dry cadence she  knows is more protection than uncaring, and she must quickly pull herself  from bed, gathering a black bag and some gear, limbs wooden with the regret of lost slumber.
Sometimes she comes home and simply drops her clothes at the door, too exhausted to put them in the laundry, pouring a finger of whiskey in a glass and flinging it back with a gesture that puts behind her all the suffering she had seen, tossing it back and away, leaving only the taste of smoke on her tongue, a scent that clings to her even after she sheds her clothes.

It's not always an easy life, but it's a good life, she thinks, as that dwindling town fades from her rear-view mirror, her vehicle moving  towards tenacious clusters of farms strung along a lonely river, old barns, listing and tumbling down, gone the way of the ancestors who built them long ago, going West, to dust. The clouds move so quickly she can't catch them with a fast car, grass laid flat in submission. Even the wind turbines seem to lean forward, waving their arms as if losing balance before a fall. A cold front has passed, the wind is howling, isobars dancing cheek to cheek as they move across the map to the northeast. Despite the cold she glances at her reflection in the mirror and sees a smile.  Endings are always beginnings, even as the wind blows.

She is glad she came here to this place, so different from that first ramshackle country home and the large showpiece she bought later, after years of hardship, as if by adding things to your life, you can somehow make up for what was taken away. She'd sold that place at a loss and given away most of her possessions, understanding after the years alone, what made her happy, and it wasn't things, nor the type of people to which that mattered.
 
Before she gets to the freeway, she crosses what was once an old wagon trail, families heading from out East to further West to more open land and bigger homesteads. There's not much to mark those passages, but for perhaps a historical sign somewhere.  But underneath the soil, are the remains of all that did not finish the journey.   To lighten the load to get through the hills further West, the plains are dotted with the slumbering bones of cherished belongings, offloaded despite the tears of a woman, to ensure they would make their destination. Furniture crafted by sweat and time, an upright piano, left on a low rise by the trail, hopefully to be picked up by someone, before it was forever silent.

Elsewhere, there are the graves, a young woman who didn't survive childbirth on the trail, the very old or the very young, felled by a simple virus or bacteria that prey on those who go hungry too often.  Some of those graves are marked with only a cross, perhaps a young woman's name, a lock of her hair and  her wedding dress, the only thing that will see the Western sunset up close, the red sky curling up like shavings of wood that formed her grave marker.
There are dozens of graves like this on the wagon trails, in deep grass and in low open spaces of land. Nothing left but some stones, or for a few, a wooden cross, the gloss of light on its surface, and shapes of long forgotten shadows on its bark. And with them, those solitary crosses, those remains of household goods, bulky memories too big or too cumbersome to take the rest of the journey. Some pieces, like the piano, ended up in a museum, didn't look as battered as you expect, as others came and collected them. They appeared almost as if they knew their scheme in things and their place was just where they ended up , their destiny meant to be left to wait patiently in the tracks of the wagon, until someone recognized their worth and laid claim to them.

On the way back from work that night, she stopped  in that little town but the businesses are all closed, the places silent. From a tree comes the sound of a single mourning dove, the note falling like liquid, taking shape as it descends through the frigid air, only to shatter as it hits unyielding ground. As she walked back to her vehicle in the frozen silence, she had a feeling that come Spring, she would drive here to find the road closed, machinery already tearing up the earth, disturbing the burial site of many a memory. She hoped those that lived away from the road, could adjust to the noise, those that live where the road would  lie, find a new path.
Sometimes you make the decision, some times it's made for you.  How you respond lies in what you need and the compromises with which you can live. You take what remains that brings you joy and you move forward, she thinks as she pulls her coat closer around her. The winds still blow from west on the prairies, wailing a hymn of our mortality. Our remoteness stands guard over a vulnerability heightened by solitude. Yet in this season between hope of rain and hard winter, comes peace, even as outside, the air stills, windless cold that only heightens her heart's heat.

As she turned back onto the two lane highway, she noticed that the trees are singed with ice so that each branch was delineated, each individually beautiful, alone. When people first settled this part of the country their homes were built from these old trees and what precious nails they had, doing what they could with what they had, to survive.  And when they found themselves cold and hungry, they moved on, but only after they burned down their homes to get their nails back.

She drove away, a darkened and weathered nail hanging by slender cord from the radio dial.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Caffinate ! - Dark Chocolate Espresso Shortbread Cookies

An afternoon experiment in the kitchen resulted in a nice break for hot beverages and a little pick me up on a cold day.  This is a dark chocolate , not too sweet, shortbread cookie, perfect with a glass of milk or with your afternoon tea.

Espresso sugar is not sugar mixed with coffee but sugar made with a coffee infusion.  I get it from Artisano's in Indianapolis (they ship!) and it's also wonderful in brownies, as a rub for steak or in molasses cookies. If you don't wish to order any, you could likely substitute a bit of instant espresso powder mixed with sugar,  but it's worth a purchase and it only takes a little bit in most recipes so even the half ounce bag (pictured) is good for several uses.
Chocolate Espresso Shortbread 

1  and 1/2 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar plus 2 Tablespoons espresso sugar
1/2 teaspoon  real vanilla extract

Beat with hand mixer until light and fluffy.

In a smaller bowl mix:
1 and 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder (I used Scharfeenbrger)
Stir flour mixture into butter mixture, stirring by hand until blended.   On a non stick surface or lightly floured cutting board, form into a log about 2 and 1/2 inches across.  Wrap well in Sarah wrap or plate and lightly cover with a piece of Sarah wrap on top and a dish towel on top of that and chill 30-40 minutes.

Slice, sprinkle lightly with a mixture of regular and espresso sugar and bake on a non stick cookie sheet in a preheated 350 F oven  for 18-20 minutes (they will spread out slightly and edges will appear dry when done.)  Do NOT over bake (they will be pretty soft coming out of the oven but harden up upon cooling).

Let cool slightly in pan on a wire rack before removing cookies. Sprinkle with additional sugar if desired.

Makes 2 dozen.

I couldn't resist though, staring down at the cookie sheet in my best Dalek voice:

"Which of you is least important!"  before exterminating a couple of them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Downhill Doggies - Barkley Gets a Package in the Mail

Monkeywrangler sent a toboggan so I can race down the hills in all the snow!
What do you mean it's a ramp for the bat truck so I can go to the vet for more x rays?
No, it's not an expensive pair of dress socks, it's now a scrunchy you can wear in your hair to the vet.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Growing Up Lutheran - Hot Dish

Hot Dish - if you are all or part Scandahoovian heritage as I am, you  know what hot dish is, the bastard offspring of leftovers and a can of cream of something soup.

It's common in Scandahoovian cooking and a veritable staple in the Lutheran Church Basement dinners that were a big part of my childhood. Hot Dishes were an easy, economical way to put supper on the table as well as use up leftovers on hand.

Ever have a craving for a warm, hearty hot dish? You too might be part Scandahoovian. Here is a short test.

1) Lutefisk is to food as ___________ is to fun:
A. a singles cruise with the Democratic party
B. Hazardous Waste Clean up
C. a colonoscopy

(2)  Finish this sentence.  "Did you hear. . .
(A).  'bout the new spice store  in Ballard
(B.)  'bout the new instant decaf coffee
(C.) 'bout the lutefisk spill over at Abbediengveien Way ? Geese are still dropping out of the sky.

(3) You have gotten into a disagreement with the customs agent at Oslo and accidentally call him a Quisling. What do you do now?
A. Hold up the Scandahoovian/English tourist dictionary and apologize profusely
B. Pray he didn't hear you
C. Nothing. Die with your boots on

(4) For the your favorite  in self defense technology you reach for:
A.   A 1911 in .45
B.  A Colt Python
CAssault Herring 

For me, hot dish was, and still is, comfort food. Some of the earliest discoveries of the hot dish were going to ladies church functions with my Mom, held in the basement of the Lutheran church. Of course there were always the baked goods, rolls, breads cookies. The smell of fresh cardamom bread takes me back there in only moments, and I still make it for Sunday breakfast sometime and there is no better assortment of wonderful Christmas cookies than in the Scandahoovian kitchen.

But what sticks out in my memory today, was all of the hot dishes laid out by the women on the tables, invariably covered with tater tots, bacon bits, shoe string potatoes, chow mein noodles, cashews and almonds (but only for Confirmations) , hard boiled eggs or crushed potato chips. Macaroni (especially the Creamette "Salad-ettes") was almost always involved and well cooked (al dente is for wimps!)

Of course, there was a "Cream of" soup as a binder for about everything. Cream of Asparagus, Cream of Mushroom. Cream of Chicken. Cream of Herring (OK, maybe that was celery).  The food was fairly bland, most cupboards only containing only cardamon and cinnamon, salt and pepper, onion salt, MSG or Lowrey's it seemed. It was also quite pale, lots of macaroni and chicken and cream of soup will do that, even the non white food (meatballs, meatcakes) having a thick blanket whitening agent on it (white gravy).  As kids we ate it all up, the ones with the crushed potato chips on them being our favorite and often requested on "liver and onion night" when Mom would make us something of our own to eat while Dad enjoyed his favorite.

Of course, the adults at the Lutheran basement gatherings tried a little of everything, the highest compliment being that you almost went snow blind looking at someone's casserole. If you were polite you would ask for the recipe, which in Norwegian translated to "Wow, how do get perfectly good food to taste like this?" People always asked my Mom was the recipe. My Mom was a Deputy Sheriff. Mom had auburn hair and was 5 foot 10. She got asked for her recipes a lot.
Of course there was always the accompanying jello salad, often made in decorative molds. Including the infamous green one that included shredded carrots and mayo (shudder). The church ladies would be quite competitive in the jello molding division. I did discover that you could mold the jello quite creatively if you cooled it with liquid nitrogen (available anywhere fine artificial insemination products are sold), creating something that would rival an ice sculpture. But Mom said No. (she also said no to the 8 mm Mauser for Show and Tell as well.)

But now, although jello as main course is only a quivering memory, I still like hot dish. But I add some HOTR touches, that the Lutheran Church women never would have thought of. Comfort is good but I don't want my food to be so bland as to be hypoallergenic.  I think Mom and the ladies would approve.
It starts with Homemade Cream of Cluck Soup . It's less than the cost of the canned stuff and 10 times better, as well as having MUCH less sodium (I just don't like the taste of most canned products because of the sodium). It's the perfect base for hot dish made from leftover roast chicken. Roasted garlic gives it a very nice, rounded flavor.

Make it ahead and freeze it and then just thaw out what you will need for a recipe. I bet if you look in your refrigerator you have the makings of a hot dish.


Hot Brass Hot Dish.
1 can of store soup or 1/4 recipe of the homemade cream of cluck
8 ounces sour cream
1/3 cup milk or half and half
a couple shakes of crushed red pepper
1/8 to 1/4 tsp Lowery's or your favorite Seasoning Salt (I also like Penzey's Ozark seasoning)
a grind or two of black pepper
a generous 1/2 teaspoon of chopped roasted garlic (or 1/4 tsp of  jarred minced) .
2 cups leftover roasted chicken
1 and 1/2 cups mixed vegetables, thawed if frozen or barely steamed.

Mix and put in a 13 x 9 pan, cover with shredded sharp or smoked cheddar (I didn't measure, just a light sprinkle on everything).

Make a box of Stove Top stuffing as directed (on the "sit 3-5 minutes part" of the directions go for 3 minutes or slightly less, as it will dry out on baking). I used the chicken flavored mix and added two pinches each of parsley and sage. I also replaced half the water with leftover chicken stock, but water will work just fine. Dollop or spread it out on top of the creamy chicken mixture and bake at 350 F for 30 minutes

It's not going to win any photo contests, but it was really good (with or without a jello sculpture of a 1911).

click to enlarge the photos, it's prettier close up.