What’s Cooking?

My Father, good man that he is, is not what I would call, kitchen savvy, and he’ll admit to that freely. For the most part, to him the kitchen is a place containing cupboards, various utensils, pots, pans, and boxes of stuff that magically transform into delicious things to eat. As he sees it, if the right person enters this place and does steamy things over the stove, wonderful dinners and desserts appear which he most enthusiastically enjoys. It’s not that he doesn’t’ appreciate good cooking. He most definitely does! But quote him, “When I look in the kitchen, it just looks like boxes of stuff to me.” And he’s in awe when others take these things and create lovely food. It’s just not how his brain reacts to canisters of flour, sugar and baking powder… with a single exception that I can recall…

Pancakes. Dad and I made a lot of pancakes together when I was a kid. He’s good at those. It was in the Betty Crocker book.

I spent a fair chunk of my childhood in the little galley kitchen at my home in New Hampshire. Most of those memories are of me standing on a chair at the edge of our tiny stretch of counter, asking my Mom if I could have a turn with the rolling pin or the cookie cutters or kneading the dough. She was always happy to have me there hogging up what little extra room the tiny kitchen provided. Now that I have inquisitive young children of my own, I utterly and completely understand how paining it often is to answer, “Sure. You have a try.” when all you really want to do is get whatever you’re making into the oven and sit the heck down for a couple of minutes after you race through clean up. She frequently let me have a go at what ever she was doing and I’ll always be thankful to her for that.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the counters covered with dustings of flour, measuring cups spread across the back like little Russian nesting dolls awaiting their chance to be filled, scraped flat at the rim and upended into the big crockery mixing bowl. It was a lot of fun for a kid who was always up for messing about with ingredients and hot surfaces and my Mother has told me on more than one occasion that I informed her from an early age that I wanted to be a chef when I grew up.

Though that never happened professionally, (at least not yet, anyhow) the kitchen has remained one of my favorite places to spend my day, exhausting as it often is. I like cooking and very much love baking and do both often.

In a little, low cabinet in my Mother’s kitchen live the recipe books, and there are many to choose from. Some bound, most assembled with hand written cards and others from torn out magazines articles or snipped from newspapers, but growing up, her master reference tome was always the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. It had been a gift from her own mother when she and my father set up house together.

Betty Crocker

I can clearly picture it laying open on the counter, scraps of paper protruding from the top to mark various pages dusted with the puffs of errant ingredients. To me, the best part was looking in the margins, many filled with notes in her beautiful cursive script noting substitutions, thoughts on cooking times or more often, when to double the laughably small quantities of frosting allotted for various desserts. On more than one occasion upon revisiting this tome as an adult, I have taken a moment to poke through and see what can be found as far as Mom’s kitchen thoughts. It always makes me smile and there is one recipe in particular I tend to look for. It’s located on the left hand page and it’s for a cookie called “Jubilee Jumbles.”

Jubilee Jumbles are a wonderful little puff of dessert with a delicious butter icing to cap it all off. They have the consistency of something between soft bread and cake but the sweetness of a glazed doughnut… but better. They are special to me for more than just their deliciousness, however.

This is where my Dad comes in. With the approach of some mom specific celebration day, (Mother’s Day or possibly her birthday. I forget now), my kitchen novice Father had the great idea that we should make Mom chocolate chip cookies. Who doesn’t love those, right? Both of us had seen her make them dozens of time and we were sure we could pull this off before she came home from where ever she had gone for the afternoon. After all, we had Betty to guide us! Mrs. Crocker would never let us down! We’d follow her recipe to the letter and it would be great!

With the confidence that only comes from naivety, my dear Father and I launched into the project with gusto. The book was found and “chocolate chip cookies” was looked up and the book propped open to the page. Within minutes, ingredients were pulled from their hiding places, the oven was preheated, mixing happened and flour flew. My Dad, who is not known for his studious direction following ability, bent hard to the task and, against his nature, forced himself to focus with laser like determination on not getting his eye off the ball and winding up with a bowl full of batter only good for setting fence posts or spackling the ceiling. He was going to follow this thing to the letter if it killed him and I did my best scurrying about to fetching him whatever the book said to add next.

We first became suspicious when, as he slid the tray into the oven, one of us pointed out that there had been no chocolate chips added to the chocolate chip cookies. Neither of us were experts in the culinary arts, me being a kid and Dad being… Dad, but we were both pretty sure that chocolate chips were a fairly fundamental part of chocolate chip cookies. It’s right there in the name, after all. This required some reflection. Did we forget a step? Dad looked over the cookbook. He examined the chocolate chip cookie recipe and noted that, yes, it did indeed call for chocolate chips, but… that the recipe for those particular cookies was located on the right hand page, while the recipe we had been following so studiously was indeed, on the left. We were off the map! What had we made?!? This was uncharted territory. Dad’s laser like focus seemed to have been focused on the wrong page.

So, we did what we had to. We kept on rolling and soldiered on and out of the oven came Jubilee Jumbles, just as Betty Crocker had intended. We followed her every instruction and the result was a beautiful and delicious, if albeit, unintentional cookie. When Mom heard the story, she loved it so much that she noted it right there in the margin of her cookbook and it has provided our family an entertaining chuckle for all these years.

In my own kitchen a few days ago, I found my self rummaging around in the cookbooks for something new to make. I was feeling in a rut with my dessert selections and thought it was time to find something else. When this happens, rather than turning to the internet, I tend to look backwards in the browning pages of forgotten recipes. I find that very comforting somehow. I reached for my own copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook to see what I could find. My addition, a gift from my Mother some time ago, is a copy from 1950 and she inscribed to me in the front cover in her fluid, perfect handwriting and I love reading that whenever I open its cover. Thumbing through its delicate pages, I stumbled across a cookie called “Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Icing” and paused to read the ingredients list. I read it again and then skimmed the directions. Ironically, this particular recipe in the Betty Crocker’s “Picture” Cookbook had no picture but since I love to bake and do so often, in my mind I could see what this would make. These were the family famous cookies! These were Jubilee Jumbles! I hadn’t thought of them in years and having long moved from my Parent’s home, hadn’t had those little delightful cookies in decades. Gleefully, I set out to make them and was eventually rewarded with the puffy, sweet cakes that I remember from that day Dad and I followed the wrong recipe. The burnt butter icing, as I quickly found out, was far too little to cover all the cookies and after making a second batch, I pulled out my pencil to scribble just that in the margins.

My handwriting is nothing compared to my Mother’s.

I’d have to call her to ask for the exact wording of what she has written in her own copy of Betty’s book, but I can tell you this, I bet that in addition to the short note about how Dad and I made these for her by accident, it says to double the icing. As I looked at the page in my own book, I decided to add an additional editorial of my own.

“I know these as Jubilee Jumbles. A favorite in our family for decades. -2013”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think its time for some cookies and milk.

Drag races and thermoses.

Deep in the back of my fuzzy, aging memory, I can still conjure up the surroundings of the school bus line as we waited semi-patiently in front of Saint Joseph’s primary school. The line up spot was at the side of the building in the nearly totally neglected basketball court, with a massive wing of the red brick school reaching out and around us like an arm, keeping us corralled. When I picture myself there, two things jump out in my mind. The first is the utterly massive maple tree that stood over us at the edge of the sidewalk with its muscular branches holding out uncountable, wide leaves that blotted out the afternoon sun and, in the spring, showering us with tons of seed gladdened propellers. I have no idea how many times we scooped them into piles and threw double fistfuls of them back into the air for the simple joy of watching them spin back to earth and, if lucky, getting stuck in the hair and down the collars of fellow classmates. Good times.

The other piece of that halcyon memory comes with color, texture and sound. The brightly illustrated and rattling metal lunchboxes that were clung to, sat on, banged around and generally abused, but loved dearly. They were a statement of whom we all individually were and we guarded them as a miniature outpost of our personal territory. That, and we didn’t want another kid stuffing them full of maple seeds when we weren’t looking.

The beginning of a new school year always began with the long dreaded afternoon dedicated to acquiring the new year’s supplies. An empty, cold, melamine desk and chair was calling us back and it was time to buy all the binders, pencils, erasers and crayons with which to cram them full. There was not a lot of room for individuality in these choices. Pencils were all pretty much yellow. Pens were blue. Those little essay booklets that looked as if they were made from itty bitty Holstein cow hides were all identical too, at least until you started coloring in the white bits, which obviously, you were bound to do. Leaving them white was just un-kiddish. Even the backpacks of the 70’s were mostly devoid of any kind of cool print or deviation of design, it was going to be simply be a matter of picking a color and writing your name on the inside cover. That was about it.

The lunchbox though… that was a different story all together.

Picking a lunchbox took time. There were a lot of angles that needed careful consideration and above all, and to the exclusion of any other concerns, it had to be picked by you. Never, EVER by your parents. The crushing shame that could result in that going wrong could prove fatal. You can be embarrassed to death, you know. All children know that.

It wasn’t the parent’s fault, naturally. Well, I mean it would be. It’s just that they couldn’t understand. They are grownups, after all.

Lunchboxes, as I think back, were really the first inroad of commercialism in the schools. It was the only place we could flout our allegiance to a favorite TV show, type of sport, movie, hobby or interest. I suppose that printed t-shits were another viable front for this sort of commercial intrusion into the world of academia, but back then, t-shirts were still mostly blank or sported simple designs like a rainbow across the chest or a star or something. Not much in the way of advertising. That, and in my case, due to the strict dress code at my little Catholic school, wearing a t-shirt to school was simply never an option for us. You might as well have tried to show up just in your underpants and tube socks. The reception you would have gotten from the Sisters and lay-faculty would have been much the same.

For us, it was all about the lunchboxes.

At the time we were making these earth shattering, deliberative, lunchbox-ly decisions our choices were seriously limited, and it made for some interesting choices. Lunchboxes back then were metal. All of them were metal. There wasn’t a plastic box to be seen anywhere. They were rugged, didn’t crack and if need be, could be used offensively as well as defensively in the blink of an eye. They were always at hand, ready for use and up to the punishment they took. An unusual and amusing aspect of these painted and embossed lunch carriers was that often, the images that adorned them were just so… random. You never knew what they were going to plaster on those things. It was one of the great side effects of adults having absolutely no clue what kids actually like. They tried everything. Naturally, there were the predictable choices with images of television shows plastered all over their metal sides. The Star Trek boxes, The 6 Million Dollar Man and Space: 1999 all come to mind as well as many movies of the era.

Still, there was a danger here in picking out the obvious cool ones when making your fall selection. Everybody liked Star Wars, or at least, anyone who mattered. Picking the box with the giant X-Wing fighter on it felt good, but could easily make you just one of the five other kids in the classroom with the exact same one, and that would never ever do. It showed poor planning and invited mockery, especially if you all ate at the same table at lunch. That’s where the random, genre based designs came in.

Back before they made it law that any thing that could at some point come in contact with child’s line of sight be covered with Disney and Pixar characters, there were the wild groping’s of lunchbox designers everywhere trying to figure out what might possibly appeal to children and were copyright free. Airplanes! Kids like airplanes, right? Let’s put a bunch of F-4 Phantoms on a Lunchbox. Hmmmm. Oh! How about Horses? Girls love horses. We could give it a vague Little House on the Prairie look, but with more horses!

In my case, it was the drag racers that got me in second grade. I likely spotted it at the five and dime and that was it: I wanted drag racers. I’m betting that this had to have confused my mother a bit. I have no idea what compelled me in this choice. My dad wasn’t a motor head, I had never been to a drag race, let alone any other kind of car based event in my life and I knew exactly none of the famous drivers. It just looked… cool, I guess.

Believe it or not, back in the day, toys didn’t have to have movie advertisements plastered all over them to look cool.

So, the trusty Drag Racer lunchbox joined in the miniature conga line of used, loved and abused food carrying devices that saw me nourished all those years at my little elementary school. They did their duty and then, with each new selection made in the following fall, the veteran would disappear into the basement or, if badly scrunched, into the waste bin, to be forgotten. As an adult, I knew that there were still a few of these kicking around at my folk’s house, hiding behind layers of cobwebs on high shelves in the darker corners of the cellar, but honestly, gave them little thought, until…

“I’ve had it with these things!” This was my remark to my wife one cool, September morning. In my hand was the leaking, sweating, heavily dented and chipped drink container that was supposed to go into my son’s backpack. Its thin, stainless steel walls were already sweating profusely due to the cold milk I had poured in a few minutes ago and, though I was sure I had put the cap on tightly, it had already leaked in the soft sided lunch (I can’t even call it a box. It’s a bag with a zipper) container, its crevices eagerly syphoning off the spilled liquid into every crack and corner to curdle and stink.

She looked up with that, “What now?” gaze I seem to get an awful lot of these days.

“You know what I want to get for the kids? A real lunch box with a real thermos. Remember those? Ours didn’t do this! They didn’t sweat because they were insulated. They kept the drink actually cold until lunch. They didn’t spill everywhere.” I put on my best look of high confidence and resolution.  “I’m going to fix this today.”

Guess what they don’t make any more? Can you guess? Not lunchboxes. The novelty lunchbox market has actually seen a bit of a resurgence, believe it or not. What they don’t have… are THERMOSES!

Seriously.

When you bought a lunchbox, it came with a matching thermos. Always! It was a given. But now, your only thermos option seems to be buying a leaky, sweaty, non-dishwasher safe number like my kids have OR to cruse Amazon for a bullet proof, top of the line model that costs as much as a new smart phone. Anyone who has seen how fast children can loose even the most glaringly obvious items, (kids can misplace their pants in a snow storm if you let them) will know better than to hand over a $32.00 milk container and hope to ever see it again. There had to be a better solution.

Time to call Mom.

Mom always knows.

Ring, ring…

Ring, ring…

“Hi, Mom. Do you think you might still have any of my old lunchboxes in the basement? You do! Could you do me a favor? Can you see if any of them still have a thermos in them? Thanks, Mom!”

Moms are the best!

As it turned out, there were three still living quietly unused lives down there, just waiting for a chance to see a peanut butter and honey sandwich and some carrot sticks again. With one, we hit the jackpot. On the outside, were the still crisply painted details of the drag strip, tires smoking as they spun at the green light. On the inside, its matching thermos! I was almost as gleeful at seeing this as my son, who looked on with a sort of awe. He knows nothing of drag racing, but he knows cool when he sees it.

Good boy.

The lunchbox its self was in rather tough shape and since we each had doubts whether it could survive another tour or duty, he elected to use is old, soft sided bag to transport his lunch in stead. The thermos though, fit nicely. After a good wash, I filled it with milk for the first time in well over thirty years, screwed on the lids and sent it off to school. The dragsters looked awesome. My boy looked proud and he informed me that he would point out to his teacher that this was his DAD’S and he had had it when he was a KID! Now that I think of it, that thermos is most probably older than his teacher.

Whoa.

As things turned out, my perfect solution turned out to be much like most of my “perfect solutions.” Short Stack came home with a report that, guess what, the thermos leaked. Milk had oozed into the cracks of his lunchbox yet again and I needed to do some scrubbing and cleaning before it could be put back into service. I think he could see that I was disappointed with the report.

“Rats. I was really hoping that would take care of it. Well, I guess that its just gotten too old to hold a tight seal anymore. We can use your old one, I guess.”

“No, Dad. I think I’d like to use your old one still.” He looked thoughtful and I realized that he was trying to formulate a good reason why he should continue to court sour smelling disaster on a daily basis. “After all, my other one leaks and the milk is always warm by lunch. This way, what doesn’t leak will at least taste good and cold!”

So, that’s our solution. This school morning, I filled up my old drag racer thermos, capping it and then, stuck it in a plastic bag as an added precaution. I slip it in the lunch bag and point out to my son which way it’s pointing and remind him to keep it upright. Then… it hit me. A flash of an image of milk smearing the inside of a metal lunchbox. MY lunchbox. The more I thought about it, the more solid the memory became.

These things leaked.

Ooooooh right.

Later, as I watched my boy happily walk through the school door with the rest of his lined up class, I hoped he’d remember to keep it tilted upright and prevent another dairy swamp from forming in his bag. He might. Or he might not.

After all, he’s a kid and mostly I’ll be happy if he remembers to come home with his shoes on. Remembering the thermos is asking for a heck of a lot. At least it will look neat and, what ever’s left in that race car decorated cylinder will be cold to drink.

That’s at least half a solution, I suppose.

Two Wheeled Freedom

It was a momentous day, and Short Stack was reveling in it.

Childhood is filled to the brim with things you can’t do and I can remember the various breakthroughs of my own youth, signifying the sometimes tangible advances of a life well spent. This summer has been rife with them it seems, or at least it seems so to me, but then again, being a parent, I’ve become hyper sensitive to spotting them. Watching one’s children grow is one of the most amazing, painful, joyous and mind blowing experiences I have ever been exposed to and today my little boy, the same little boy whom I held as a new born, can ride a bicycle ALL by himself.

He has wheels.

And this makes me both ecstatic and terrified.

Bicycles mean one thing to a kid, and that is Freedom. Freedom to go visit a friend. Freedom to take yourself to the store. Freedom to go flying off a home made ramp, crashing spread eagle in the gravel at the end of some driveway. High speed, distance covering, skinned up and bleeding freedom.

Growing up, my house sat on the corner of one fairly busy road and a very quiet and sleepy dead end. When I took my little red and white Schwinn out, it was to the dead end street I’d go to pedal in car free bliss among the familiar driveways. That was where all the fun was to be had really, anyways. It was the seventies and young families dotted the landscape all the way down, where the road terminated incongruously at the edge of a hay field. Traffic was non-existent other than father’s coming home or going off to work while hoards of other kids my age zipped back and forth, helmetless and careless on their own bikes. The road was paved, flat and level. It was perfect for learning to ride and I took to it with glee. I can actually remember the moment my own freedom began.

Dad was enthusiastic, if not a little bewildering, at coaching me. There was a lot to remember and I don’t blame him at all for over explaining the mechanics and best bail out practices. (I understand now, having viewed the situation through my own parental point of view with my on children.) He wanted to give me the best chance for success.  Barring that, he wanted to give me the best chance to only suffer grass stained knees in the event of a full blown directional failure rather than a teary trip to the bathroom for cotton balls and antiseptic with Mom. This was the moment those horrible little, loud, clattering wheels came off for good. I was going to ride on two wheels!

The sensation of rocking back and forth from one training wheel to the other still percolates away, half forgotten in the back of my mind and I can still just recall how uneasy it made me feel as I waited for my bike to bump from one to the other as I scooted along. The chance to do away with that and bike on my own was a compelling. In the warm spring sun, I watched Dad flip my bike onto its handlebars and seat, tools lying in the grass of the front yard, ready for surgery. The adjustable wrench made short work of the nuts holding those little, noisy outriggers to the axle and they were discarded like pulled teeth at the edge of the grassy workspace. With a flip of the patent, we were ready to go.

“Ok, Buddy. It’s all set. I’ll hold it still while you climb on.”

There, in front of the house, I clambered aboard my mighty little steed and looked down the diminutive hill that would lead me to the side yard and then onward to the edge of the dead end street.

“Just take your time. If you feel like you’re going to fall, just tumble to the side. The lawn’s pretty soft and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to use your breaks and watch where you’re going too. Remember to steer. Keep looking strait ahead, not at me. You can do it!”

Naturally, this being the decade that it was, no one, not even kids on their very first biking attempt, wore helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, body armor or any of the other things we’ve since deemed required to keep children safe. It was just my own pink flesh covered in whatever thin clothes I might have been wearing at the time. Being warm out, the chances of that being shorts and a tee shirt was pretty good, thus leaving my knees and elbows exposed to sand-papery disaster.

With a gentle push and my white knuckles wrapped around the handlebars, I trundled bouncily across the lawn, tiny knees pumping all the way.

“Yeah! You’re doing it! WHOA! Where ya going?”

The image in my mind of the grass at the edge of the yard giving way to a sharp line of asphalt is clear as a bell. I can even remember the sensation as the jouncing of the lumpy lawn gave way to the smooth hum of pavement. I knew at the time that I wasn’t cleared for road riding yet and that there were, no doubt, things that my Dad would wanted to prep me on first, but I was on a roll and there was no way I was stopping. In retrospect, I’m not sure that stopping was an option even if I wanted to. Using the breaks was a far more dangerous procedure than simply continuing on forward, so I just prayed for a clear path free of oncoming vehicles and kept going. A few minutes later, my triumphant return to the yard was besmirched only with a sloppy dismount as I tumbled onto the lawn. I didn’t care, though. I was hooked. I had smelled success!

That day is one I’ve thought of on and off for years and years, and to be honest, I’ve remained a bit proud of my achievement the entire time. It’s hardly equal to a solo crossing the Atlantic or standing on the peak of Mount Everest, but it was a personal Everest of childhood achievement. A rite of passage, to be sure and as such, it was important to me. It still is, I guess.

I’ve only ever seen that day from my own point of view. This all took place in the time of the analog world and if it were going to be recorded by my parents, it would have involved a bulky Super 8 movie camera or the actual snapping of shutters. To my Father’s credit, at that moment he was paying more attention to me riding for the first time rather than fiddling with F-Stops and focus. All of this is recorded only in our memories.

Where we live now does not easily lend its self to learning the skill of bicycle riding. The dirt road in front of our house is strewn with potholes, which, though great at slowing down overly enthusiastic traffic, may as well be bottomless pits of doom to those learning the art of bicycling. We’re also at the top of an impressive hill, which would make a duplicate of my own learning experience end in a most spectacular and gruesome way. Toss into this my son’s natural cautiousness, and you can see why it’s taken him a while to warm to the notion of putting feet to pedals. We’ve tried, on and off for two summers to get him comfortable with the two wheeled machine, but the spark of his own interest just wasn’t there… until now.

I don’t know what possessed my wife to drag out his bike this time, but I’m not the only one who’s glad she did. Something… some amazing connection in his little brain, just… worked, and pretty much right off the bat, too! He got on, aimed himself down the dirt road (happily, away from the hill of doom) and away he went. No help. No push. Just, ZOOOM!

Navigating successfully around the potholes, he asked me to critique his performance.

“How’m I doing at avoiding the holes, Dad? Did you notice that I’m steering around them?”

He always talks in this frank, almost clinical manner. It cracks me up to no end.

“You’re doing great, Short Stack! Keep pedaling and watch where you’re going. Don’t forget that you have breaks! Just use them easily or you’ll skid.” Watching him go, I don’t know who was more excited. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Watch those feet go! Pump! Pump! Pump! I had to run to keep up and we quickly left my wife and our daughter in the dust.

We chatted as he scooted and I jogged beside him, trying not to let my stomach turn as I noticed his perfect, unblemished bare knees and exposed elbows. As he went, his engineer mind was a buzz of activity and he wanted to dissect some of the finer aspects of bike riding. Being the analytical, science minded critter that he is, he was doing some hypothesizing about why he stayed up.

“I think I know this works, Dad. It’s because the air is getting pushed around me as I go and when it splits, it pushes me on each side and holds me up!” He’s never at a loss on ideas and I actually hate to correct him sometimes since his ideas almost always have some merit. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell him the truth, though. I tried to keep my breathing level and speech even as I ran along.

“Actually, it’s your wheels. They act as gyroscopes. The faster you go, the better job they do at keeping you stable. That’s why you feel wobbly when you’re going slowly.”

“OH!” He likes gyroscopes. “In that case, I should ride REALLY fast!” And just like that, he immediately outstripped my top running speed, blasting off ahead of my ability to keep up. I know that it won’t be the last time this happens in one way or another.

We spent the better part of two hours out on the roads, biking and running. We only had one upset which involved a parked car and a moment’s inattention, but no injury to the boy, bike or car was made and he quickly resumed his newly gained avocation. Finally, it took some bribing with a freeze pop to get him to eventually head back to our house. On the way home he said that he felt like he could ride all day. He was very proud of him self, and rightly so.

“Dad? You know what? I think I’m the happiest kid on the island today.

I looked down at his beaming smile and blasted my own right back. “I bet you are, Buddy. I’d definitely say you are!”

Later that evening, Short Stack turned to his mother with a serious face and made an announcement. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You might not know this, but you met a new person today.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched and our son straightened.

“His name… is Speed.”

As new names go, Speed is a pretty awesome one, and he earned it. He went faster under his own power than ever before and it’s a skill that will literally take him far as well as set him up for other successes. I’m very proud of him, not just for learning to ride, but also for taking his next step. It is, after all, a big deal for anyone to achieve.

Now, let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to change his name to, Ramp Boy.

The Long Trail to Happiness

When Action Girl and I decided to have children, one of the things that I couldn’t wait for was to find out what their “thing” would be. Everybody’s got a “thing.” At least, every kid seems to. I think a lot of adults forget their passions when they get lost in adolescence and are forced to focus on areas of academia where minimal interest resides. That and peer pressure, of course. There is no cleanser more astringent than the scorn of your contemporaries. So many childhood passions are lost through these effects and I wanted to be a powerful force in the corner of my children’s imagination versus the rest of the world. The older I become, the more sure I am that a person’s true strength lies directly within the sphere of their passions.

Thomas Jefferson once said that a man who loves his work never works another day, and I think that’s about right. He also said that he was all about freedom and yet owned slaves, so I’ll grant you, you do have to keep an eye on TJ. Still though…

My son, Short Stack showed his cards early on. There was a brief flirtation with trucks, which is far from unusual for small children, but that had ended pretty abruptly the moment he saw his first rocket.

I believe he was two and a half.

He’s six now and has been focused like a laser on his own personal prize since the day he realized that that he could have something to do with them. Like any parent, I ask my kids every so often what they want to do for a job when they grow up, just to test the waters and see where the wind has shifted in the previous weeks. Last week, Short Stack’s answer was, “I want to build propulsion systems for new kinds of rockets.”

Oooooh kay.

My four year old daughter, Lulu Belle though, is a very, VERY different little critter. She want’s to be a cowgirl.

Or maybe a fairy.

Nope… a cowgirl.

Or princess.

Maybe a cowgirl princess?

But Pirates are good too!

Hey, dad. Did pirates ever play with cowboys?

Tell you what, dad. You be Dale Evans and I’ll be Roy Rogers.

YEE-HAW!

(I love the fact that I somehow wind up being Dale. Better than being assigned Pat Brady, I suppose.)

And that’s about how it goes. She loves playing dress-up from her considerable pile of costumes she’s amassed and they all get a work out, but the cowboy hat, vest, sheriff’s badge and pink handled six shooter get by far the heaviest work out.

The fact that we can not possibly live farther away from the Western Plains and still be within the boundaries of the contiguous United States only adds to the perplexity on how this all got started. To the best of my knowledge, I never pushed the cowboy lifestyle to my children, but Lulu Belle seems to have embraced it with a fervor previously reserved only for children born between 1940 and 1955. When it comes to requested video entertainment from my young daughter, it’s usually black and white episodes of the Lone Ranger or the much loved, Roy Rogers. She knows all the names of the characters, their horses, origin stories and will back them up with her own cap gun when things get tough.

Clayton Moore would be proud.

So now, I know. Lulu Belle wants to be a cowgirl. I’m not sure how this translates into a life for her, let alone an income stream, but we can deal with those details later. What I do know is that right now, it makes her the happiest. When her brother discovered his love of aerospace, I pandered like hell to it. His room is an homage to NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Shuttle program. When he was four, I took him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the shuttle Discovery take off. I’ve tried as hard as I could to feed him what he craves the most in the hopes that it will allow him to be as happy as he can be.

Now it’s time for sister.

The trick is, since the 1960’s have long since ridden off into the sunset, finding good cowboy material has gotten substantially trickier. We watch the old shows on YouTube. We dress up in cowboy gear, though some of it has to be manufactured right here in our little house due to scarcity in the market. We talk in cowboy-ese and naturally, she has her very own Wonder Horse! You remember those, right? The giant plastic horse mounted on a frame by means of exceptionally squeaky springs.

If there is anything she loves more than pretending to be a cowgirl, it’s making up stories, (Can you guess what they tend to be about?) and this has now spilled over into bedtime. For the last little while now, once the bedtime books are all read and the light is out, she’s hit me with a request which I find hard to pass up. She wants a story, as she puts it, “You tell me. Not from a book.”

I’ve told her stories about me growing up. I’ve told her stories about things her Mom’s done. I’ve told her fables as best as I can recall my Aesop. The thing is, if you don’t have a theme, it’s hard to pull up a good story on the fly. That’s when she pointed out the elephant in the bedroom.

“Dad. Tell me a story about a cowgirl!”

It took a minute or two for me cook up the basics, and an additional night for us to ascribe names to the players, but we’ve gotten it worked out pretty well now.

In a valley in Wyoming, sits a small ranch. The road that runs in front of it will take you to town. The paths that lead away from the ranch will take you to the high pasture and then on to the aspen forest. Another path goes to the pond while a third leads to Big Rock, which has a breathtaking view of the valley below. To the West, the Rocky Mountains tower, capped in snow. The inhabitants of the ranch are a girl of unspecified age named Annie and her Horse, Thunder. Thunder, naturally, lives in the big red barn next to the corral. There’s also a shed where Annie keeps her tools.

Now all she needs is a friend. Enter some occupation diversity.

In our very first story, I also introduced Piper and Scout. Piper has short, red hair and lives in Colorado. Scout is her trusty, silver airplane with the big blue stripe that goes all the way down each side. They met when Piper got lost and had to land at the ranch for directions as the evening closed in. Naturally, Annie invited her to stay for dinner and the night and the two have been best friends ever since.

Sometimes the stories are just about Annie and Thunder. Sometimes they’re just about Piper and Scout, but her favorite stories include them all.

It’s still trick to come up with a believable and engaging story arc off the top of my head, but I must confess, I think I’m enjoying them just as much as she is. With each evening of me kneeling on the floor next to her bed in the darkened room, the world of Annie and Piper gets more and more vibrant. We now know about the fixed hole in the barn roof, how long it takes to ride to town and the tree Annie chopped down up in the aspen forest. Last night, I couldn’t help my self and after my little cowgirl was asleep, I sat down and wrote out that night’s story.

I’ll share it with you, if you’d like… But you have to wait for bedtime.

Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…

…sometime.

Hopefully…

In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?

Wrong.

My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”

WHACK!

“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.

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