Friday, June 29, 2012

Feed your face, feed your soul

Growing up, I remember going to my grandparents' homes and really being overwhelmed by their kitchens. On my father's side, my grandmother kept a refrigerator full of deli lunch meat, cheese, soda and snacks (not much on the veggies, however). Her cupboards always had cookies and chips and crackers.

My mother's mom had a fully stocked refrigerator, two huge chest freezers, a second old-style ice box fridge and a pantry --plus a smokehouse out back. You could always find a gallon of ice cream somewhere, plus just about anything else. Granny could feed an army and occasionally did --particularly around the holidays.

We ate like kings when we visited my grandparents. 

My folks stocked up much more modestly. We had plenty to eat, but Dad quit smoking and became a health nut, a manic long distance runner and a crazed gardener. Somehow, he talked my mother into canning tomatoes, corn and grapes and baking loaf after loaf of zucchini bread --I don't think it was her idea.

We had lots of that stuff, but not no much cheese; no crackers, usually, except saltines and cookies were something we saw sporadically at best.

Later on, after my folks split, things got a little tighter. Mom started buying the good cereal instead of just Raisin Bran, but there wasn't the sense of plenty we'd had before. However, even so, it was still a lot more than what I became used to as an adult.

In the dark, dark days, I remember getting by on cheap bags of black beans and medium grain rice. Sometimes, I'd buy cans of Mexican salsa to pour over it, to give it flavor. Other times, I'd get bottles of salad dressing with Arabic labels.

Whatever was less than a dollar.

Sometimes, the only thing in my refrigerator when I opened that door was my shadow and that scared me.  I worried about not having enough, but really, truthfully, I was never remotely close to going hungry --at least not for very long. There were times I felt like it was close, but I always had the beans and rice. I had friends willing to feed me from time to time and my mother lived just 30 miles away.

But I also had my pride and I kept my mouth shut about it. Most times, nobody knew how I was living or that I was just squeaking by. 

Still, when I panic about money, when I worry about how I'm going to get through a month, it always comes back to having enough to eat. The rest can be managed. Utility companies and lenders can be negotiated with. You can beg them to cut you a break, forgive some of the extra fees and charges; buy yourself a little time. If the worst happens, you can go to bed when the light fades and wash up in the employee restroom. You can catch a ride to and from work. It's only temporary.

Food is different. Everybody has to eat and you cannot negotiate with your stomach. It holds you hostage. The best you can do is trim back. When you're a little short, instead of the apples, you get the bananas because apples are $1.69 a pound and bananas are only 55 cents a pound --or you can buy jello. If you're a lot short, stick with the beans then raid the condiment packages left in the fridge at work to make another bowl of pintos seem palatable.

Most of the time no one even notices they're gone.

The fear creeps in when you're not sure if you can afford the beans and I've seen that. It's left a mark on me. I've probably written more about being afraid of going hungry as much as anything.

So, while I was planning my garden, I did something else: I bought shelves, nothing special, just inexpensive, but sturdy shelves. I also began collected canning jars and I started turning a little nothing space without much use otherwise into a pantry.

It's nothing special. Every time I go to the grocery store, I pick up a couple of extra cans of something, a box of this or that. I put it on the shelf. So far, it hasn't come to much --just a dozen or so cans, a couple of boxes of pasta, some powdered milk, two or three pounds of dried beans, a few packages of noodles and a 12 pack of diet soda. It's enough for a couple of days, but my stock will grow and I take nothing from those shelves unless I replace it with something new.

Every once in a while, I go to this little room in my house, just to look at it. I think about what else I should add. Canned meat has come to mind, but I hate tuna and canned chicken sometimes smells like cat food. There should be spices and tea, loads of things, but there's not a terrible hurry. The shelves are filling up slowly, but surely.

These days, I'm not so worried about where my next meal is going to come from or what form it will take. With this little gesture on my part, maybe I never have to worry again. If so, that's kind of a comfort --and one that's long overdue.   

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Green Acre: Seeds from the slacker 2

I never got a tiller, never was even able to borrow one for an afternoon. A friend of a friend offered to bring his and come cut up the ground for me, but his schedule never coincided with mine or the weather's. The weeks dragged on, but I was already working on planting.

I started hitting the flea market in February, looking for a shovel, a rake and a hoe --these seemed to be the minimum I'd just to plant something.Winter was mild and I was antsy to do something with my hands.

The only patch of ground that looked remotely likely for being something I could work without a tiller was a strange square protected by a rusted and sagging fence.It reminded me of a pet cemetery, forlorn and half forgotten, a place where countless goldfish of another generation had been laid to rest along with a couple of good dogs and maybe a cat.

The soil was dark, but the whole patch was overrun with poke weed. It looked deliberate, like the previous owner had planted the stuff, but nobody does that. In all likelihood, the land had been prepared, but never used. The old man's wife had become ill. The whole house is a living document to her decline, with little changes made to accommodate her growing frailty and immobility.

Birds probably took the land over. They'd brought the seeds and weed the weed had thrived unchecked.

I decided I could make my stand here or at least try.

I got a shovel and a pickaxe from my mother's basement; the same tools my father had used to dig and maintain his garden when I was a boy. I remember watching him and being part of the whole excavation of the lower quarter acre. He'd used the pick axe to pry out rocks, some of which had become part of the low stone wall at the bottom of the yard.

Pieces of that wall still remain, but not many.

The garden patch was worse than I imagined. The poke weed had grown deep. I spent half a day pulling up dessicated stalks and cutting and digging up swollen roots that looked very healthy. I pulled out chunks the size of basketballs and tossed them in a stinking pile on the other side of the fence. I filled something like ten leaf bags full of debris from the plot not much bigger than a couple of parking spaces.

I was a little too pleased with the job and on a whim decided to go ahead and plant a couple of rows of greens, carrots and some beets.

My father suggested I hold off, but he lives about an hour or so from Canada. His winter and growing season are very different than West Virginia.

I'd already started tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in little peat pellets indoors. What would be the harm to go ahead and try to get an early jump on things?

The back of the packages swore they'd grow in the cold, that they loved the cold and I hoped they were right. To be honest, I was kind of counting on them getting a head start on the weeds. The weeds would return. All the books said they would and when the new plants grew, I wouldn't know which was which. I had no idea what spinach or lettuce or beets looked like when they first came out of the ground.

I hoped it would all turn into something I recognized before I yanked them out of the ground.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Turn on, tune in.

I started attending church, mostly, because my girlfriend attends regularly and it's a nice place to see her. She dresses up for services and I love the way she looks at me as I come through the door --occasionally late. What I like is she never completely expects me to be there, but is glad I showed up just the same.

She's been attending the same church for as long as she can remember and probably before. My attendance at church prior to the past few months might be considered spotty at best. Oh sure, I was the vice president or secretary or something for a Methodist church youth group in high school --but I was mostly recruited, I think, to help mow the cemetery plot the group maintained.

I never joined the church, just attended youth group meetings and went to services maybe three times in two years.

I also became a member of the Southern Baptist congregation about a dozen years back. At the time I was in emotional free-fall. A friend suggested I come along with him to church and I was desperate enough to give it a try. The message was soft-soap Christianity with a heavy dose of general counseling --plus they served donuts in the morning. As I was broke and hungry almost every weekend, the donuts were kind of nice. I always had two --even if they were invariably stale.

With the Baptists, I was good up until the pastor actually delved into the nuts and bolts of the religion. The preacher and I exchanged many e-mails on why I didn't agree with the contents of his sermon either on Biblical grounds or because it just sounded like thinly veiled political bullshit.

Periodically, he would tell me I should have been a preacher, too. I don't know that he really meant that, but may have been looking for a way to shut me up.

I was never a very good Christian. This isn't to say I was out looting and plundering or sacrificing goats to obscure Byzantine gods on the side. I lived a pretty good Christian life. I prayed a couple of times a day. I attended every service I could. I read my Bible and whatever was considered the hot new religious text of the moment --"The Prayer of Jabez" was popular, as was stuff by Rick Warren. I watched Kirk Cameron in "Left Behind" and was sober --at least the first time through.

The second time, I realized it was too damned silly to take seriously without something to help suspend disbelief.

Quite frankly, I think the rapture is bullshit and about as likely as the world ending because of the return of a flying winged serpent.  

Anyway, I walked the walk --at least as best I understood it. I tried to live by what I read and what I was taught in church. I believed, but then the belief system I'd established was challenged and my faith collapsed like an empty aluminum crushed against a frat boy's forehead.

I was never a really good Christian, I guess. When the real trials showed up, my belief in a benevolent god withered. As much as preachers and pundits talked up the idea of spiritual trials, I could never wrap my head around what was served by making even one child autistic or blind or born with a broken heart.

So, I began to look elsewhere. I wound up reading a lot about Buddhism and a few self-help-y new age books (just not the stupid ones that promised to connect me with dead people, put me in contact with my guardian angel or help me decipher my fate from water). I even called myself a Buddhist for a while, not that I really was.

I liked the idea of letting go of attachment and the notion of responsibility in Buddhism wss very attractive to me. Part of what I didn't like about Christianity is that there was a vein in it that tended to turn everything over to God, including the stupid things people do just because they can, like screw each other for money or dump poison in the water. 

I liked Buddhism's pretty specific, though very broad, code of conduct, but the concept of reincarnation sort of stalled for me, as did the complicated system for determining karmic merit. It seems unlikely that the universe was created by an accountant.

I'm not entirely sure the Buddha believed that either.

I've been hot and cold on religion. These days, I think, I'm moving toward warm. It's been a while, but I'm interested in spiritual things again. 

Attending church is odd for me. I'm not really there for the message, though the man giving the sermon is a nice, earnest and plain-spoken kind of preacher named Mike. Earnest counts a lot in my world. I appreciate having an honest intention and Mike seems like he's in this for all the right reasons. Of course, he also reminds me ever so slightly of Glenn Beck, but without seeming like he drinks gasoline straight from the pump.

Mike is also smart enough to know I'm there for the girl, not for the guy he's talking about. There are times I feel a little bad about that. It's a very nice church. The people are thoughtful, sweet and kind --just very decent people who don't seem to do a lot of grandstanding or chest thumping about how swell they are because they're Christians. I feel a real sense of humility in the bunch as a group.

They're warm and welcoming, but I'm an "other," a visitor, a tourist and an alien. It's not them, of course. It's me. I hear the words, but they don't really move me. I feel nothing much beyond the warmth of my girlfriend's hand and the joy from watching her smile at me, but I wait to see if there's anything else. I never stop hoping there is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Green Acre: seeds from the slacker

While I wasn't writing, through the spring, I kept busy with a garden. The old guy who'd had the place before me had been one of those "alpha" gardeners when he was younger. The back yard was still furrowed and dented from where a tractor had passed over it many times.

In my mind, I can see the tall stalks of corn growing neatly, the perfect turnips poking up out of the soil, peppers and tomatoes practically bursting from the vine. 

His garden would have looked just like the slick pages of a seed catalog.

But that garden would have been many years ago, before his wife became so ill, before the old man, himself, grew tired of the leisurely work of growing food for fun and began talking to real estate agents about selling the place.

The garden was gone, but a kind of scar remained covered by a green overgrowth of thick clover; clover, that choked my mower and left me sweating and swearing under the mid-day sun after I'd worked the whole morning; clover, that made me regret every footfall by the end of each wasted Saturday and wish for something like napalm.

Starting a garden seemed like my only option. If I couldn't cut the grass, I'd carve it out and replace it with beans, beets and watermelons for the kids. I'd make the garden so big and massive, the neighbors would think I'd turned Amish.

I had no idea where to start. My few attempts at gardening had been typically sad and depressing. It always sounded so easy: just scratch some ground, put in a few seeds and cover them up. Remember to water them and let the sun take care of the rest.

It is not that easy.

Too often, I'd wound up with sickly plants with slick, black roots that looked like they'd been drenched in motor oil. They bore little fruit and their lonely, wilted foliage always suggested unspeakable abuse. In a good year, I might get a handful of tomatoes and a couple of pencil nub carrots. The rest would go to weeds or to seed and become bait for moles.

Through the winter I poured through books --some of them I read --and I looked for advice on how to plant, what to plant and when. I glanced through catalogs like I teenage boy with his first porno mag and gazed with something approaching lust on weird, Russian tomatoes and exotic African gourds. What was the point of even trying if I was just going to grow what I could buy at Foodland?

Everything looked amazing. I chose half a dozen varieties of this and that, sent off an order then did it again with another company. Some of this was bound to grow, I figured.

But I didn't have much in the way of tools: a couple of plastic hand tools generally used for flower gardening (purchased from a dollar store and probably meant for a child) and a snow shovel (bought at an auto parts store and not especially good at removing snow).

Pretty clearly, I needed a few things.

For months, I told myself I needed a tiller: front tine, rear tine; some kind of tiller. It would solve all my problems. It would chop the ground up like hamburger, reduce the weeds and grass to rich, organic confetti and I could just cast my seeds out over the perfectly sculpted rows like rolling dice. All I'd have to do after that was get a watering can and remember to make sure to dampen the ground every once in a while.

Yeah, that was the plan...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Seven and the Ragged Tiger

I remember when I started this blog –I thought it was over: writing. I’d been writing for what was then The Beat for maybe a year. My section of the paper was just about the change when the editor bought me lunch and told me that maybe me blogging for the newspaper wasn’t really working out.

At the time, I thought this was just the first step toward me being cast out of the writing circle I’d worked so diligently to become a part of. I thought I’d have to go back to just writing for the free papers again or –heaven forbid –those fuckers at Graffiti. 

Losing the blog wasn’t that big of a deal, actually. It had never really caught on. I had never really figured out what to do with it and I wasn’t especially happy with what they thought I should do with it. Basically, I think, they imagined it as some kind of cross between the Huffington Post and a Twitter feed –but at a cost to them of $35 a month.

I didn’t update the blog as much as my editor wanted and very shortly after the blog began, I started resenting having to turn in loose blog posts to be edited.

It just wasn’t a good fit for anyone, but just the same, I was being let go, turned loose and that stuck in my craw.

I started this blog because I didn’t like being shown the door –not that that was what really happened. The truth was the newspaper was just getting into blogging. They had no idea what they were doing. Blogging was part of that new electronic media stuff. They're still working out what to do with it.

Anyway, the basic idea for this blog was simple: I’d write about the things I wanted, not just the stuff I was assigned. I’d do it in my voice without an editor demanding that I try to be cooler or hipper or whatever. I didn’t have to be any cooler or hipper than I already am, which isn't particularly cool or hip. I could grow on my own terms. I was free to be weird, profane and stupid.

The audience was only briefly considered most of the time, but I developed one --even if I didn't always know who was out there. I was never more proud than when someone knew me from here and not from what I wrote at the paper. It was kind of perverse, but I enjoyed having a quiet "grassroots" following.

This blog has had its ups and downs. There have been periods when I wrote a lot –and periods when I’ve taken breaks for weeks or even a month or so. I think I took a break this last time partly out of sheer weariness --having your marriage collapse and starting over will wear you out –but also because I didn’t really feel like writing about where I was. Unexpectedly, I'd fallen in love and had no idea what to write about that. I wondered how much was too much to talk about and whether flying my freak flag too high would screw things up with her. 

These are serious things I considered.

I also didn’t feel much like writing, in general. This was burnout. For a while stringing more than two words together in print was tough. My head was in a fog. Whatever I did come up with kind of sucked and I told myself I should save up whatever I could for the people who pay me to write. 

Anyway, some of the fog has lifted. I want to write and I think I have things to say again. In fact, there are things I can say here that I can’t say with my newspaper blog (the word “fuck,” for example) and for sure, there are things I can say here that would and, likely, should never go into print.

This is how it should be.

Somehow, in the past few weeks, I’ve stumbled back to the beginning. It finally feels right to write again, to write like this again at any rate.

Welcome or welcome back, but read at your own risk.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Coming Soon

All right, all right, the blog is coming back. I contacted Suddenlink. As soon as they turn on the internet, I'm back.