Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fire Folly

     One evening last summer, as my husband was barbequing chicken breasts for our dinner, we smelled smoke—smoke coming from inside the house rather than from the barbeque sizzling on the deck outside. At first, we thought it might be coming from the light in the soffit over the kitchen sink. Our alarm increased as the smell of burning grew stronger, so my husband yanked the canister for the recessed light fixture out of the soffit, taking some of the sheetrock with it. There was no sign of either fire or smoke, but we decided to call the fire department. As soon as he hung up the phone, my husband noticed that he had laid the wooden cutting board on the front burner of the gas stove, which he had forgotten to turn off after melting butter for his lemon garlic baste. But it was too late to call off the fire truck. Two shiny red engines, an ambulance and police car came roaring up to the house with lights flashing and sirens shrieking our folly to the neighbors. Then, even though it was a false alarm, the firemen had to come into the house to investigate.

     I must admit that when the trucks arrived, my daughter and I, profoundly embarrassed, fled upstairs to hide, leaving my husband to face the humiliation alone; but when all of those strapping young firemen trooped into the house, we suffered an attack of conscience and came downstairs to apologize. After all, we had called them away from the first game of the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in the playoffs. I should have baked those obliging firefighters a pan of brownies and sent my unmarried daughter over to the firehouse to deliver them.

painting by Mike Savad

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Smell of Coffee

Spotlight on Coffee

     Many of my childhood memories are laced with the smell of coffee.

     I remember my father driving us out to the peninsula on weekends to visit my aunt and uncle in the country. There, in the damp shadows of tall firs and alders, a crackling wood fire on the hearth often greeted us. If we drove out on Saturday there would be hamburgers for dinner, and if it were Sunday there would be tender roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. I remember my aunt’s lemon-filled layer cakes and wild huckleberry pie for dessert, and the perpetual aroma of coffee brewing on the stove. Yes, coffee smells like weekends in the country. 

Honking Pine

     I remember too, the terrible Columbus Day Storm when I was seven years old.  A violent storm with unequaled gusts tore through our town, uprooting trees, breaking windows and knocking out power; it was the worst storm I have ever experienced. I crouched in the dark before the shivering light of the fireplace that wretched evening, listening with my family to the news on the radio, restless with the nagging fear that there was danger in the world larger than the safety of my father’s arms.  I was terrified most of the night and crawled into bed with my older sister thinking the house might fly away just like Dorothy’s did in The Wizard of Oz.  By morning, with my father brewing a pot of percolator coffee and frying up stacks of pancakes for breakfast on the Coleman campstove in the kitchen, I felt safe again. For me, coffee is the smell of comfort.


     When I was in my teens, Ruth, the egg lady from Cherry Blossom Farm, would bring her eggs into town on Saturday mornings to deliver door to door. She always stopped at our house first for a cup of coffee and a long chat with my parents. Then she and I would drive all over town in her Volkswagen van delivering eggs to her customers. Ruth drove and kept the records of delivery and payment, while I did the legwork. Customers soon began calling me the egg lady too. We often stopped for a cup of coffee with an old and usually tipsy man and woman at the end of the route; it was a kindness on Ruth’s part, and I learned patience. So then, coffee is also the smell of hospitality and coming of age.

Coffee Connoisseur

     I married a dedicated coffee drinker. It is the smell that starts and ends our days together. When the kids were little, my youngest would sometimes drink a cup with daddy in a baby mug of coffee-flavored milk. We lived in the heart of Starbucks country long before it sprouted on every street corner in the nation and beyond, and for many years my husband has been a loyal customer. Now that he travels so widely, the international community has begun to influence his choices. He sprinkles ground chocolate on his cappuccino because of the Brazilians, bought a state of the art espresso machine and burr grinder because of his mates in Australia, and is switching his loyalty from Starbucks to Intelligentsia because of an Irish-Canadian sommelier he works with. In our house, coffee smells like companionship and culture.


     And yet, I never drink the stuff. I am the only one in my family who never developed a taste for it. Even so, the smell of coffee is so entangled with the fabric of my life I have no wish to go without it.

Coffee Art® painted with coffee by artists, Angel and Andrew Saur

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mongrel Mouthful

     I was watching The Chew recently and heard chef Curtis Stone say that when he was living in London, his Australian accent wasn't cool and was even considered uncouth by many; but when he made a trip to Cancun, he drew a lot of enthusiastic attention from the spring-break coeds for the exotic way that he spoke.

     I remember when I first moved to the Midwest, I felt almost swamped by the way people spoke. Everyone talked with a broad Midwestern twang which was often married to a blunt Chicago accent that impressed me like a burr under the saddle. Twenty years later I am so used to it that I don’t often hear any difference; and then it occurs to me, perhaps there no longer is a difference. Chameleon-like I am unconsciously prone to imitating other people’s tone and vocal rhythms.

     I’m not alone. I know a southern woman who picked up the twang and kept her drawl at the same time, and a British man who moved home to Newcastle and was ribbed for his American accent, all the while sounding purely British to me. The motherland for me is the Pacific Northwest and at one time I would have said that there was no accent in the west, but my daughter says she can spot a Californian as soon as he begins to speak.

     My husband is from Southern California but he left it before the onslaught of Valleyspeak in the 80’s when the erratic use of simile as a conversational filler and the popularity of the interrogative statement spread from Los Angeles to the entire nation. The trend to talk like an airhead lost momentum in the 90’s, but elements of the style are still with us 30 years later. I occasionally use some of those elements myself. Whatever.

     Just as language is fluid and new words are continually coming into use in order to meet the needs of our advancing society, fashion is fluid as well and will also change as culture fluctuates. The fashions of dress, behavior and speech are never static. In the closing scene of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, Katherine tells Henry that it is not the fashion for the maids in France to kiss before they are married. Times have, indeed, changed.

     The latest fashion in speech is Vocal Fry. From the chatter generated online concerning this trend, it appears to be a burr under the saddle of many. I readily admit that I would find the habit grating if I were often exposed to it; at the same time, I wonder what Shakespeare would say of our way of speaking English if he were to come back from the grave and write a blog post about it. He might wish to vilify us for mutilating his beloved language, but on the other hand, we might wish to slap him for sounding so archaic and pompous. Don't mistake me, I would love to walk around speaking like the Bard, but I don’t think it would endear me to my family or friends.

     Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us are shaped by and speak the language of our culture, and that culture is an amalgamation of influences from our past—fads included. In The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, actor and writer Stephen Fry describes British English this way:

     “The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.

     So I am thinking vocal fry will be around for a while yet, until it becomes so last year that its characteristic growl rumbles off into the distance like thunder from a passing storm. In the aftermath, however, some of its components will most likely be absorbed into the vernacular, and may even leave a regional dialect as distinctive as those in Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn or the American South.

     For, despite the fashion for the maids of France in the fifteenth century, Henry got his kiss as well as the girl, and their union changed the course of history.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Blackberry Picking

     Filling an empty five-pound coffee can with blackberries is slow work. When I was a girl, they grew wild on the hillside above the potato chip and pickle factory, and also along the runway of a nearby private airport. The blackberries we children harvested often ended up heaped into pies or melted into jam, but sometimes we picked them to sell.

     The bushes were dense untrimmed thickets with wicked prickles eager to scratch and catch and trap us in their tentacled embrace, and it was impossible to come out of them unscathed and unstained with berry juice. After gleaning all of the accessible fruit near the ground, we scrounged for debris: cardboard, old boards, car tires—anything that would serve as a shield against the clutching canes and sticker bites—and laid it against the brambles in order to climb high enough to reach the heavy clusters ripening near the top. With the possibility of losing your footing and falling into the midst of the briars where both your skin and clothing would be torn to shreds before you could fight your way free; and the ever present fear of being swarmed by a pack of resentful rats that, as my brothers informed me, were prone to inhabit such places, it took some careless courage and dedication to pick blackberries.

     But the risk was worth the reward. We didn’t receive an allowance and there weren’t many ways to earn pocket money. Sometimes the parson’s wife in the manse down the street would pay us a dime to weed her rose bushes, but we were too young for babysitting or mowing lawns, and a lemonade stand required too much capital. So from time to time, on late summer mornings, my younger brother and I would each fill a can with blackberries, walk a couple of miles to a more affluent neighborhood than ours, and go door to door selling our fruit for 75¢ each. They always sold quickly. Then we had the long, tired walk home to consider how to spend the profits. I wasn’t a prudent child, and I usually spent mine on candy.

     Nowadays, I can never pass a lemonade stand without stopping to buy a cup. I pay whatever is asked for watered down Crystal Light or Kool-Aid that tastes more like cleaning product than lemonade, and I leave a generous tip. I don’t care whether the young entrepreneurs blow their earnings on candy or save it for college—for me, it’s not the point; I remember too well what it felt like to have money I had earned myself jingling in my pocket.

painting by William Stewart MacGeorge