Archive for November, 2018

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  • November 30th, 2018

STICKS AND STONES…..ETC

By Joel M. Vance

I have to confess that the first time I picked up a pair of chopsticks, it was every bit as daunting as if I were picking up a stick of dynamite with a sputtering fuse. The two wooden sticks were fused together so tightly that with my spindly arms straining, grunting like a rooting hog, I feared that this initial excursion into exotic culinary territory was doomed. The sticks snapped apart with a percussive crack that caused several diners to consider diving under their tables, sure that a mob hit was in progress.

 

The only assault was on my sushi rolls and for a while I looked like someone trying to pick up marbles with a pair of wet noodles. Since, I have become reasonably adept at the use of chopsticks, although if I still were in the dating game I wouldn’t dare take a date to an Asian restaurant, much less try to impress her with my savoir-faire. I have enough trouble with knife and fork without tempting fate by using a pair of flimsy sticks to fling food into my mouth. Chopsticks can be downright scary. 

 

While it’s perfectly acceptable in an Asian restaurant to pick up your miso soup bowl and slurp from it, if you tried the same thing at a White House dinner you’d probably languish in Fort Knox under armed guard for the rest of your natural life. In an Asian restaurant, the waitstaff would merely hide smirks and continue to serve you with scrupulous politeness— they are used to show off Yankees making fools of themselves.  Oddly, our local Chinese restaurant does not even offer chopsticks as an option—perhaps they saw me coming.  It is in the local Japanese restaurant that I dazzle people with my adroit use of the wooden sticks, much as Arturo Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra with one half of a pair of chopsticks.

 

Asian eating culture is often vastly different than that of us white bread Americans. It’s all very well for Andrew Zimmern to pluck parboiled sheep’s eyeballs from a bowl of some exotic dish with a pair of chopsticks because after all he’s Andrew Zimmern and expected to do things like that. But for the rest of us wielding a pair of chopsticks is every bit as exotic as watching cricket and understanding what’s going on.

 

I once read a hilarious essay in the Chicago Tribune about how to use chopsticks and used it for years as a perfect example of the best how-to article when I was teaching writing classes. The author, Charles Leroux, invented a klutz named Marvin who was hopeless with chopsticks but ultimately became an expert using a pair of ivory chopsticks like a pool shark equipped with a custom cue stick.

 

Marvin could’ve been me at the time, a fork wielding Midwestern WASP with no more idea of how to use chopsticks than I had of how to twirl spaghetti onto a fork in the Italian style. I couldn’t even eat food off the back of the fork as the English do. The idea of plucking tiny morsels of food with a pair of oversized toothpicks seemed as impossible as using a forklift to pick up pebbles.

 

Leonardo da Vinci does not show us what eating implements the disciples and Jesus were using at the Last Supper. But it’s interesting if not blasphemous to speculate that some if not all were using chopsticks, for after all, chopsticks were invented long before the birth of Christ. Probably not–the odds are against it for several reasons. Primarily, chopsticks historically were Asian in both origin and use.

 

Most Asians have no problem scooping noodles into their mouths with ease.  I have watched my dear Thai friend, Noppadol Paothong, scooping noodles into his mouth with chopsticks and it seemed no trick at all until I tried it–but I was quickly back to my trusty fork. At first I tried twirling the noodles around the chopstick ends, but since I had not mastered the same trick on Italian noodles, using a fork, I was faced with what Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

He was talking about dealing with the Russians, but perhaps he came up with the idea after flipping noodles down Queen Elizabeth’s scoop front dress at a state dinner.  I solved the noodle problem by ordering only dishes featuring solid objects that can be seized with chopsticks. I leave the noodles to Nop.

 

 Try picking up one grain of rice with chopsticks and you will spend all day  scooting it around on the plate, but the Chinese have solved that problem by creating sticky rice which clumps in convenient bite -sized chunks, easy to capture with a pair of chopsticks.

 

Rice is the almost inevitable companion of all Asian dishes and there is a reason for that.  Aside from being nutritionally beneficial, rice is there for a reason. It is said and probably true that to stave off the legendary “hungry an hour after” effect of eating Asian food you should pack in the rice. By itself, sticky rice is pretty bland fare, but enlivened with invariably spicy Asian additives it makes for an eminently satisfying meal.

 

I’m willing to bet that the reason behind Asian cuisine being legendarily spicy is that the incendiary aspect of most Asian dishes is to offset the blandness of the rice. I eat at a local Thai restaurant which offers a heat scale of one to five. I’ve never dared to go beyond two and I have a feeling that five would have me emulating Puff the Magic Dragon.  I once was a queasy witness in college to what passes for high-class humor in a dormitory. A friend lit the gaseous nether region effusion of another fun lover and a bright blue flame appeared. Try the same thing in the wake, so to speak, of a number five Thai dish and the result likely would be a mini version of Mount Saint Helens.

 

Chopstick etiquette varies from country to country but it is widely accepted that one does not spear morsels of food with a single chopstick like a torero sticking a fighting bull with a banderillo.  Likewise you don’t lay down your chopsticks so they point at a dinner companion while you slurp down a mouth full of Sapporo Beer— that’s like laying a loaded revolver beside your plate pointed at your companion. Instead you lay your chopsticks in a rest, an accessory item. If you don’t have a rest you can fold up the paper envelope in which the chopsticks came and make one.  And the sticks should point out and never be planted in the mound of rice like someone digging postholes.

 

I don’t pretend to be an expert at eating with chopsticks. There always is a moment of fumbling with the two wooden sticks before I get them situated in my hand, ready for combat.  And every now and then I have to adjust my grip, like a baseball player choking up to bunt.

 

I am overly fond of a local Japanese restaurant that features sushi rolls to which I am as addicted as a meth head is with his fix. Sushi rolls are ideally constructed to facilitate being picked up by chopsticks. Even a beginner usually can grasp a sushi roll with the sticks and convey it to his or her mouth. Dipping it in a sauce is a bit more daunting, but not impossible— and I usually do dip, either into a sort of thousand Island concoction, or soy sauce spiced with wasabi.

You have to be careful using wasabi, an atomic substance which assaults your sinuses as if you had stuffed a hand grenade up your nostrils. Wasabi is related to horseradish and mustard, but to those condiments it is like a lady cracker compared to a stick of dynamite.  It supposedly hammers the bacteria that causes food poisoning and I can visualize some poor microbe screaming in agony as it succumbs to a wasabi attack.

 

Most people—me included— confuse sushi and sashimi. According to Japanese custom sashimi, raw fish sliced thinly, is eaten with the hands, while sushi, fish rolled with rice, is eaten with chopsticks. And a sushi chef will dab the roll with wasabi in preparation. In case you’re wondering what the pink colored sweet vegetable next to the wasabi is, it’s pickled ginger, used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi.  There is a daunting list of ritual connected with how to eat sashimi and sushi, including how to show your appreciation to the sushi chef if you are eating in front of him.  For example, never rub the sticks together— it is considered terribly impolite and you’re not trying to start a campfire.

 

The essential question of course, in case you don’t want to look as if you’re practicing for a knife fight, is how to hold chopsticks. Pick one up as if you were picking up a pencil between your thumb and index finger. The other stick should fall naturally beneath the first one manipulated by your ring and middle fingers (the middle is the one that you use to salute Donald Trump when his image appears on your television set). The little finger is a spare in case you have some sort of industrial accident and lose your ring finger. You can reach down with the two sticks and squeeze a morsel of food between them with a sort of pinching motion.

 

It’s considered bad form to dip into a communal bowl of food with your sticks. Instead, there should be serving chopsticks available to transfer food from the main bowl to your plate or bowl. Soup?  The Chinese long ago caved in to necessity and use spoons for marvelous miso soup (I could drink that stuff all day long).  There is no social disgrace in picking up the bowl and drinking from it. When it comes to noodles, or other slippery food, it is accepted to bring the bowl close your face and use the chopsticks as a sort of shovel to scoop with.  Or you can Kung Pao chicken out as I do and leave the noodles to your Asian dining companions.

 

Chopsticks even have made their way into popular culture with a song, if you can call it that, by a rap group and with lyrics that are obscene and repulsive. At the other end of the spectrum, chopsticks are the subject of a Sesame Street session, illustrating in music how tiny tots can solve the mystery of those funny wooden sticks. “Two little sticks and they’re made out of wood/and they help you to pick up your lunch/and if you practice then you’ll get good/and you’ll find that you can pick up a bunch to munch”

 

Every budding concert pianist, of course, starts his or her musical career by learning to play “Chopsticks”. The original name of the piece was “the Celebrated Chop Waltz”. It dates to 1877 and was written by Euphemia Allen.  The piece has been used many times in movies, including one of my favorite films “The Seven Year Itch” where Tom Ewell played a duet with Marilyn Monroe and tried fruitlessly to kiss her. His romantic haplessness was the parallel personification of someone in the initial throes of learning to eat with chopsticks. That movie spawned the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown up around her hips, a cinematic moment certainly more memorable than Tom Ewell’s fumbling attempt to play “Chopsticks” on the piano.

 

Meanwhile, chopsticks will continue to flourish in countries where they have flourished for centuries, and will appear sporadically in the Western world— but don’t expect when you pull into your local McDonald’s and order a burger and fries to have the pimply faced, minimum wage waiter ask “Y’all want chopsticks with that?”

 

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  • Blog
  • November 22nd, 2018

CONFESSIONS OF AN OMNIVORE

 

By Joel M. Vance

 

I am a hunter and I make no apologies for that.  But I hunt to eat…or I eat to hunt.  There is, in my genome, the genetic matrix of the hunter/gatherer.  I am never happier than when I’m in the garden in spring, watching the green sprigs of new life, or when I’m in the field with a shotgun and flushing birds to be shot.

 

Man wasn’t granted canine teeth for chewing gum or gnawing on carrots.  They are for tearing meat, although they do work fairly well on carrots and Doublemint.  I am, along with bears and raccoons, an omnivore.  Carrots or meat, it’s all the same when hunger strikes, but even better is carrots and meat.

 

So I raise a garden and when the oak leaves blush and frost rimes the prairie grass, I follow bird dogs and carry a shotgun.  I hope to kill quail, pheasants, ruffed grouse, woodcock or any of several other game birds.  Or I crouch in a rude blind, shivering in bitter cold, in hopes that migrating mallards or gadwalls will come to my plaintive call and bobbing set of decoys.

 

And yes, there is a certain sadness when a vibrant creature lies dead on the ground or on the water.  Taking life is not something done lightly.  Killing solely for sport is an iffy proposition—I don’t shoot crows or prairie dogs or anything I don’t plan to eat.  Some do and I don’t criticize them.  I just choose not to do it myself.

 

Those opposed to hunting argue that today we don’t need to kill for food, save in the most dire circumstance, that the IGA Supermarket provides us with everything we need.  Of course those chops and chickens at the supermarket once were part of something living, breathing and with more life to live than was granted by the butcher.

 

But that’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.  Another argument is that we don’t need meat, that we can eat vegetarian.  That is not an option, at least for me.  I crave fish, fowl and game.  I am the legatee of Neanderthal man, crouching in the mouth of a rude cave, fearfully gnawing on a haunch of something he managed to kill. My hunting tools are far more sophisticated than Joe Primitive and I employ more subtle ways of cooking than charring raw meat over a smoky fire, but the result is the same—a full belly and a temporary sense of well-being.

 

Too many in modern society will snack on the flesh of once-living creatures with no thought of how their food got to the plate.  I do know because I caused that transformation.  I have shot my entree to death and this is a tragic circumstance to many.  I believe that animals (including birds) are born to die. There are predators and there are prey and since I have those canine teeth I ease comfortably into the predator camp.

 

My ideal meal is a venison roast, cooked rare, with vegetables that I have grown in my garden, prepared by me or my wife, and served to treasured guests with a fine bottle of cabernet or shiraz.

 

We sit in the dining nook, overlooking the lake where we fish in summer, ice skate in winter.  We live off the lives of other creatures.  It has been this way since Man first slogged out of the primeval mud and it’s not likely to change in my lifetime.

 

Quail are my delight.  These little eight-ounce birds are as tender as a baby’s cheek, as are their larger cousins, ruffed grouse.  Pheasants have tough legs because they would rather run than fly, but the bosom of them is succulent to the max.

 

Wild turkey doesn’t need butterballing or whatever it is the processors do to give a tame bird some flavor.  These lordly kings of the wooded ridge are tender and flavorful and the invariable comment from senior citizens with a rural background is, “Why, that tastes the way turkey tasted when I was a kid!”

 

Most Americans, at least urbanites, never have eaten wild game.  At best they might have experimented with farm-raised venison.  But those animals are pretty much cows with antlers, fed the same rations as feedlot steers.  They haven’t dined on acorns or wild succulents that lend a tang of the wild to the innate taste of the meat.

 

It isn’t “wild” or “strong.”  The so-called “wild” taste of wild game usually is the result of poor handling, not an intrinsic strong flavor.  If the cook is put off by the prospect of gaminess, he or she can soak the meat in milk for a couple of hours.  Duck breasts and venison both benefit from this.  Brining will moisten white-meated birds, making them less likely to dry out in the cooking (overcooking is a common error among neophyte wild game cooks).  A cup of salt to a gallon of water makes a good brine.  Cover the bird with water, brine for several hours (overnight is not too long).  Rinse thoroughly before cooking.

 

Another culinary trick for fileted duck breasts is to dredge them in olive oil on both sides, sprinkle liberally with Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.  Grill the breasts and you’ll think they’re prime beef filets.

 

Here’s another recipe for any dark-meated bird: marinate in refrigerator for 12-24 hours (½ cup Worcestershire sauce, ¼ cup vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon garlic powder).  Sauté two cloves crushed garlic and one small diced onion in two tablespoons of butter until onion is clear, add meat (duck breast size or smaller) and cook in a cast iron skillet over medium heat for five minutes, turning often (the meat, not you).  Add a cup of sliced mushrooms and continue cooking until meat equals your beefsteak preference.

 

That recipe is thanks to Tom Huggler, a Michigan outdoor writer/gourmet cook, and is from Campsite to Kitchen, a sadly out-of-print cookbook published by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

 

If you prefer your duck to taste like duck any recipe from the many wild game cookbooks listed will work.  Choose one that tickles your fancy.  Duck should be cooked rare; goose medium well.  All wild game benefits from a side dish of wild rice.  The best wild rice (which isn’t rice, but a marsh grass seed) is very light in color.  The blacker the seed the farther it is from the wild rice beds.

 

I buy rice in northern Minnesota from a really nice hermit whose front yard looks like Fred Sanford’s and who always seems to be suffering from a massive hangover.   Wild rice stores well, either frozen or sealed in jars.  It’ll keep for years.

 

There are wild ducks that eat good and there are those that the dog would spurn.  “Puddle” ducks, those that spring from the water and like small bodies of water, generally are the best eating.  They include mallards, every hunter’s favorite duck; and gadwalls, wood ducks and teal.  Some ducks simply are not good eating.  The worst I ever tried was a bufflehead, a chunky little duck that looks like a flying butterball, but tastes like a flying garbage can.  The king of food ducks is the canvasback, sadly declined in population to where the limit is one, but the chances are you’ll never have a chance even to see one, much less reduce it to table

 

Two game species that have not declined are white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, both of which number at least as many and probably more than they did in the days of  John Smith and Pocahontas.  You have three choices on acquiring wild venison: 1. Kill it yourself; 2. Beg some from a hunter friend; 3. Hit one with your automobile.  The first two choices are preferable to No. 3.

 

Venison roasts are lovely.  Steaks are easily overcooked, as are ribs.  Best of all is the backstrap muscle—the tenderloin.  It will melt in your mouth.  It needs no trickery to make it tasty.  Cook as you would a beef filet.

 

The latest fad in wild turkey cooking is deep fat frying.  It takes a powerful amount of oil in a huge vat, over a fierce fire…but the submerged turkey emerges from its dip succulent and moist.  And instead of roasting for hours, a 10-pound bird is done in less than one hour.   Peanut oil is the preferred liquid, but safflower or canola also will work.  It definitely is an outdoor exercise because of the danger of fire from hot oil splashes (which also are dangerous to the chef).

 

The wild turkey is the bird that Benjamin Franklin recommended as the American symbol and it is the voice of spring, announcing atop an oak-hickory shrouded ridge that it is the meanest son of a bitch in the known world (which for a turkey may be five or 10 acres).  A wild turkey in strut, centered on the bead of a full-choke shotgun, is a vision to raise hackles and make strong men question their certainty about life, longevity and planetary orbits.

 

But as a prey creature, a wild turkey stands above all else.  Deer, elk, all the “trophy” animals, are victims of circumstance.  You may stalk them, but in the end you shoot the equivalent of cows in a pasture. A wild turkey is different.  You prey on a gobbler’s springtime lust to lure it to a call.   Perhaps you can do the same with an elk or a moose, but it is mandatory with a spring wild gobbler.

 

You hear the first gobble of the morning before daylight, a bird roosted high on a thick white oak branch who came awake early because a barred owl said it owned the woods.  “No way, you piddly little squirt!” declaims the gobbler and the game is on.  You softly intone seductive hen calls that will melt a gobbler’s caution and you continue to pillow talk until he flies down into the sharp spring morning and comes looking for the hen he plans to bed.

 

And that is me, armed with a Model 12 Winchester, full choke, that dates to 1916 and a powerful hunger for wild meat.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

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  • November 16th, 2018

…..DON’T ASK ME!

By Joel M. Vance

Okay, the election is over. We all are disappointed to tears or elevated to joy. Time to get back to the realities of life, like cowboy bars.  There are bars and there are bars. There is the “Cheers” bar where the same group of regulars gather every day to knock back a few and listen to Cliff Clavin  pontificate  on dubious theories and watch Sam Malone try to make out with his latest squeeze. Then there’s Duffy’s Tavern for those of you with long lives and longer memories who recall the opening: “Duffy’s Tavern where the elite meet to eat. Duffy ain’t here. Archie the manager speakin’.”

 

And there are roadhouses, distinct from cowboy bars although both are far more likely to serve beer in pitchers as opposed to cocktails with fruity little umbrellas in them. Anyone asking for a Manhattan or a James Bond martini, “shaken not stirred”  in either of them would likely wind up in the parking lot with multiple bruises.  Both have music and dancing but there the similarities end.

 

A roadhouse is far more likely to feature the music of a jukebox, whereas the cowboy bar is more likely to host a live band. And, while beer drinking is the preferred form of exercise while seated, active participation in Terpsichore is so de rigueur the beer often goes flat while the table occupants are busy figuratively cutting rugs (although no carpet ever adorns the scuffed wood floors of either roadhouses or cowboy bars).

 

I have had a lifelong aversion to barroom dancing faster than what we called buckle polishing  since a traumatic incident in 1955 in Lawton, Oklahoma, where I, filled with misplaced confidence after a couple of beers, dared to ask a beer joint queen to dance with me, possibly to Fats Domino’s spirited rendition of “Ain’t That a Shame?”. The shame, it quickly turned out, was mine when the girl stopped mid-dance and snarled “What the hell are you doing?” Two things were obvious to me. She knew what she was doing— and she knew I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Her words stuck a psychological stiletto in me which has lasted now for some 60 years.

 

I’ve tried nearly everything to cure myself of this psychosomatic roadblock short of psychiatric treatment, which costs far more than the beer that doesn’t go flat while I sit at the table and watch the active dancers, often with my date as a participant. How I wish I could equal my wife Marty (my date of 62 years) as she pirouettes and gracefully spins like the vintage Ginger Rogers.

 

She loves dancing and has since her teenage years frequenting Louie’s Sweetshop, a Macon, Missouri, ice cream parlor hangout for the teenage crowd, with no beer, but a jukebox and a throng of dance worthy Macon high school teens who could easily have outclassed the gum chewing teenyboppers of Dick Clark’s Bandstand.

 

Every time the movie Swing Time appears on television I watch it. Ginger Rogers is a dance instructor who is assigned Fred Astaire, with whom she has had a previous disagreement. Fred pretends to be a bumbling incompetent at learning to dance and she is exasperated with him until, like a beautiful butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, he becomes Fred Astaire and they in turn become Fred and Ginger and not once does she stop him and snarl “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

I have tried the Astaire approach to dancing many times over the years and have the bumbling Fred part  down pat; however, so far, my butterfly remains locked up in an impenetrable chrysalis. Mr. Astaire summed up my lifelong attitude toward dancing perfectly in 1936 in the movie Roberta when he memorably sang “I won’t dance, don’t ask me” and summed up his reluctance this way: “I feel so absolutely stumped on the floor.”

 

Of course he finally did get coaxed to the floor and proved that not only he would dance, but that he was not absolutely stumped and instead was Fred Astaire. The few times that I have been coaxed to the floor, mumbling “I won’t dance, etc.” I proved conclusively that I was stumped. Many have tried to turn my feet from stumps to Cinderella’s slippers and have failed , from my mother to my wife.

 

The mother part began on the rickety floor of the Dalton Hotel, the ramshackle one time railroad hotel where we lived as a family of three people and a small dog in 17 rooms during the 1950s. There are few things more intimidating than dancing with your mother.

 

My parents were products of the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper Era, who abandoned their origins in the boondocks of Wisconsin and Missouri for the flamboyant lifestyle of Chicago in the Capone years. They would go to nightclubs  for dancing and the kind of upscale revelry only seen in the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, leaving me in the care of a babysitter who, as best I can remember, was so geriatric as to barely be able to negotiate our apartment, not to mention too feeble to teach me the Charleston. It was left to my mother to indoctrinate me into the mysteries of the foxtrot.  Waltzing was best left to the fans of Wayne King, the Waltz King, and his orchestra, heard on our Zenith upright console radio. I could imagine people waltzing or foxtrotting in a ballroom high atop some exotic hotel in some distant city— but not in Dalton Missouri population about 200 which had no hotel other than the decrepit white elephant in which we lived and which was about as exotic as the noisy feed mill that was directly across the dirt street.

 

So, my mother and I, squared off in the Dalton hotel, a 78 RPM record tinnily sounding a danceable melody on my record player which, to that moment, had played only Hank Williams laments. Elsewhere, my high school classmates were jitterbugging and, for all I knew, even waltzing. But I was gingerly trying to coordinate my feet with the music and with my mother’s instructions all of which left me in the same mental state I suffered when our algebra teacher tried to explain how “a” equaled “b” over “c”– that is to say helpless confusion and an almost overwhelming urge to burst into tears.  “You take two steps to the left, one to the right,” mom said. “Then you do it again.” She dragged me in a sort of circle around the rickety floor and it must’ve looked the way it looks when a dog’s owner tries to drag him in the door to the vet’s office for a series of painful shots.

 

There was no attempt to explain dancing to the musical beat or naming the name of this simple exercise which I assumed to be the foxtrot. I’ve never seen a fox trot, but I would suspect one doing what I was doing of being afflicted somehow, possibly with rabies.  If you have seen the movie Frankenstein, the original from the 1930s, and watched Dr. Frankenstein’s monster lurching through the countryside creating havoc, you will know what my dancing looked like. Or perhaps it looked like a wind up mechanical toy with a defective mainspring.

 

In Keytesville high school there were a few guys who could fast dance and they were universally despised by those of us relegated to the sidelines. All the girls knew how to fast dance and frequently danced with each other, an in your face insult to those of us brooding out of the action. Up the road, in Macon, where Marty thrived, all the guys knew how to fast dance because they had Louie’s Sweetshop as a training ground.   I lived six miles down the road from Keytesville in Dalton where there was no jukebox, no Louie’s Sweetshop and where gilts and heifers were far more common than available human female dance partners.  Even had my mother been capable of teaching me to fast dance, she was a graduate of the era of the Lindy Hop and out of the dancing mainstream by the time the Jitterbug came along.

 

Fast forward 60 years or so—not too fast or I can’t keep up— to the present time.  Marty and I are fond of sitting on our deck on a soft summer night, the stars sprinkling the sky, our outdoor speaker tuned to a 1950s rock ‘n roll reprise , enjoying a glass of wine, each other, and our cherished memories. Marty’s memories are of dancing at Louie’s Sweetshop, possibly to the same melodies now echoing across the Cole County nightscape, while mine are not of dancing, especially with my mother in the Dalton hotel—although I could have been listening to those same rocking melodies and wishing my feet knew what to do with them. But I probably was listening to the St. Louis Cardinals with Harry Caray shouting exuberantly “it might be—it could be— it is! a home run!”  We have our priorities and I didn’t know Marty and Louie’s Sweetshop existed then but I did know everything there was to know about the St. Louis Cardinals. And, while Stan Musial often danced around the bases, he didn’t do it to a boogie beat.

 

Every so often now so many years later on our deck, emboldened by wine, the romance of the stars, and the presence of Marty, I will say “let’s dance!”  And I clumsily stumble around the deck trying to emulate what Marty does so effortlessly. To give her credit and, as a measure of our everlasting love, she does not stop me in my tracks and snarl “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But after a few fumbling steps, it is painfully obvious that I still do not know what I’m doing, and we go back and sit. Once, on the deck late at night, I saw what I am certain was an unidentified flying object—a bright light which arced across the sky and was not an airplane or a satellite or anything I have ever seen before. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps aliens would land and somehow through superior, alien intelligence,  plant in my mind and body the ability to dance fast.

 

And now we come by circuitous route to cowboy bars.  We have arrived at a point in life where (and I have photos to prove it) Marty is fast dancing with our married grandson, while I sit ringside, and stare moodily into my rapidly going flat beer. I have done so countless times in roadhouses stretching nearly nationwide, and in a few cowboy bars as well.

 

. The occasion was a night out in the mountains of Colorado at a bar called Crystola where a live cowboy band delivered high-energy dance music to an enthusiastic local crowd. Woodland Park, at 8500 feet of elevation, is high enough that, for the geriatric crowd, even shambling from the bedroom to the john (a frequent occurrence for us elderly folks) is enough to get you out of breath. Fast dancing is for teenagers and those acclimated to living with minimal oxygen.  Crystola is notable for having a huge cutout of Johnny Cash giving the finger behind the bar and a portrait of a naked woman on the ceiling, obviously visible only to someone passed out on the dance floor (which I figured I would be if I tried fast dancing at 8500 feet).

 

Our daughter, Carrie, and son-in-law, Ron, had promised us a surprise anniversary present—which turned out to be the night at Crystola.  Was that a strange anniversary present or did they perhaps sense something epochal blowing in the thin mountain winds?  There, at the age of 84, and at a celebration of our 62nd wedding anniversary, I decided that enough was enough

 

I watched entranced as a thirtysomething father and his adolescent daughter flawlessly emulated one of those boogie-woogie couples from 1940s black-and-white movies, twirling, whirling, and executing acrobatic dance moves that would have left Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse speechless with admiration.  And Marty danced with grandson Nickolas, the years falling away like autumn leaves and Louie’s Sweetshop lived again.

 

“Enough is enough!” My inner self shouted to my outer self, especially my feet. And I hadn’t even had a sip of beer when I jumped to my feet, grabbed Marty by the hand and said “Let’s dance!” She looked at me as if I had grown a second head and followed me onto the dance floor. Somewhere the spirit of Chuck Berry was writing new lyrics: “Roll over Little Richard/tell Fats Domino the news!”

 

Well, I won’t say that I suddenly turned into Fred Astaire, playing a con game with Ginger Rogers, but I managed to get through a dance or two with my beloved and without having to relinquish her to the educated feet of our grandson (although my knees ached for several days afterward). Perhaps a new day has dawned.

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  • November 10th, 2018

ONCE MORE INTO THE FRAY

I have posted this blog before on Veterans Day and on the Fourth of July– but especially on Veterans Days because that is the celebration for which it is intended. It seems most appropriate this Veterans Day because it is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I— the war to end all wars as it was termed inappropriately at the time.

And the election is over but two months remain for our insane president to do unimaginable damage to the country before the people’s house takes over and perhaps puts an end to the division and outrage of the past two years.  Trump allegedly will be meeting with his puppetmaster Vladimir Putin in Paris in the next week and there is no telling what instructions the Russian dictator will have for him. Trump already has deployed something like five active duty soldiers for every expected man woman and baby still far from our southern border, hoping for asylum and freedom from fear and, oppression only to face the same probability from our bloated butthead of state.

Let me restate my feelings about our country as I have known it for more than eight decades. We have been great; we can be great again— but we need to purge ourselves of the toxic divisions that threaten us today and return to the visions of the founding fathers. It starts with calling to account our lying, deadbeat, crotch grabbing president who holds the prestige and heritage of 241 years of the United States of America in his grubby little hands as he faces the world’s leaders.

 

By Joel M. Vance

It was Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women. “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”

Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities. I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard. But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.

I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.

The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale. The first number was a medley of patriotic songs. “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.

And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet. This is a beautiful country, not like any other. It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.

Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful. Others choose to be saintly. Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it. Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.

We are a nation founded on civil disobedience. My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.” And it’s not “my” country. It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.

We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better. It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.

But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them. There is no anthem called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life. We just don’t try hard enough.

It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia. There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol. I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school and college, got married and participated in creating our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.

Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today were born, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap. Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed the family farm with a corporate one, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.

We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so. For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it. For every sodbuster who would upend the last acre of native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.

While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is. It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.

So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.

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  • Blog
  • November 1st, 2018

VOTE! TO SAVE DEMOCRACY

By Joel M. Vance

Donald Trump describes himself as a nationalist and as if to underscore that he understands the historic meaning of that self-description, he says “we’re not supposed to use that word” and added “you know I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Use that word.”  The most notable nationalist leaders in modern history to identify themselves as nationalists were Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the dictators respectively of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Heidi Beirich, a spokesperson for the  Southern Poverty Law Center said this about Trump’s use of the word nationalist: “When you see the rise of nationalist movements— in Europe, America and other places—it can signal bad times ahead for minorities. Historically, it’s taking a stance against newcomers and those who are different.”

 

Does this description resemble the Trump attitude toward the migration of Honduran refugees headed toward the United States, still some 900 miles short of the border between the United States and Mexico? Donald Trump refers to this caravan as “an invasion”, as if it were some sort of incipient blitzkrieg marching toward our southern border. So afraid, apparently, of these people seeking asylum because they are fleeing from death and destruction in their native country, Trump has sent several thousand troops to defend our border against women, children and desperate fathers.  He threatens to send up to 15,000 regular Army troops, more than are currently deployed in Afghanistan.

 

Every time I hear the right wing denouncing the asylum-seekers as invaders or as a Democrat funded rabble or a mob of “very bad people” I am immediately reminded of the words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, our very symbol of what the United States stands for. “Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

 

Stephen Miller, a senior advisor to Trump, and somewhere to the right of the farthest right of the Republicans, said this about the inscription on Miss Liberty: “I don’t want to get into a whole thing about history here. The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

 

Actually, Miller was correct in that the inscription was not part of the original statue— it was a poem written by Emma Lazarus to raise money for building the pedestal on which Ms. Liberty stands. Sadly, Ms. Lazarus died of cancer a year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated and it was another two decades before the words were inscribed on a plaque fixed to the inner wall of the statue’s pedestal.

 

Ms. Lazarus was Jewish, which should have no bearing on the words she wrote or their meaning except that the country right now is mourning the massacre of nine Jewish worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Anti-Semitism has a long and ugly history in the United States, along with other unforgivable prejudices like those against African-Americans, Native Americans—or, for that matter, against my Irish forebears.

 

Trump’s answer to the Pittsburgh massacre was to suggest that if the worshipers in the synagogue had been armed the killer could not have survived a shoot out. This echoes his earlier suggestion that teachers should be armed and ready to start shooting. His parents must have supplied him with too many Gene Autry cap guns and too many hours of watching John Wayne westerns on television when he was a kid.  Or maybe his daddy wouldn’t let him go to a Ku Klux Klan rally and it pissed little Donnie off.

 

Trump flew to Pittsburgh with his daughter Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom practice Judaism (Jared is Jewish, Ivanka a convert), but before even the first of the victims was laid to rest and against the wishes of city leaders and grieving members of the synagogue. Some of the Jewish community were upset feeling that Trump put more blame on the synagogue for not being weaponized than he did on the crazed killer whose only aim was to kill more Jews.

 

In an especially ugly historic anti-Semitic incident a boatload of 900 Jewish refugees seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 was turned away from our border and forced back to Europe where an estimated 28 percent of those refugees were sent to concentration camps and died, among the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. The boat they were on was named the St. Louis.  As a proud Show Me state resident, that factoid gives me a cold chill.

 

The synagogue shootings happened amid a spate of multiple gunfire murders this year, along with the mailing of a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, including two past presidents, by a deranged and self proclaimed Donald J Trump supporter. His bombs did not detonate; but the guns of the various shooters did.

 

Anyone who suggests the necessity for sensible gun laws automatically earns the wrath of the National Rifle Association and from far too many legitimate gun owners— it seems to me that the biggest enemy responsible gun owners face too often is gun owners themselves. I own a dozen guns, hunt with them, have target shot with them and see no justification for gun confiscation or other restrictions that other countries have imposed.  But there are proposed regulations on gun ownership that are no threat to me or any other responsible gun owner. Why not work toward limiting access of guns that could be used to kill people?

 

On the heels of the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, Trump assaulted the Constitution of the United States by saying that he would issue an executive order denying automatic citizenship to babies born within the borders of the United States— a right guaranteed by the 14th amendment. Even Paul Ryan, usually his fawning acolyte, said that proposal could not legally fly. But Trump continues his nonstop tirade against this imagined invasion by the Honduran refugees.

 

Trump tweeted “I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught—and if unable to do so I will call up the US military and close our southern border!”  Trump, and his toadies and right wing talk show mouths claim that the caravan is being financed by the Democrats to influence Tuesday’s election results and the primary culprit, according to them and without even a shred of credible evidence, is wealthy George Soros who just happens to be Jewish.

 

The onslaught, as he terms it, or, variously, “the invasion” is not being financed either by the Democrats or by George Soros. It is self financed and desperately poor. Often, towns along the way have furnished the migrants with food, water and shelter— things that Trump would deny them if and when they reach our border. Trump claims the caravan is infiltrated by criminals and, as he terms it, people from the Middle East— a euphemism for Muslims. As is true of almost every Trump statement on anything, that is a damn lie. There is absolutely no evidence of any infiltration by anyone who could be considered a threat to this country.

 

To hear the right wing tell it, the Honduran migrants are coming to the United States to take our jobs, vote Democrat and commit crimes. Among other valid reasons, they are fleeing crime—Honduras and El Salvador are among the top five deadliest countries in the world. Their homeland is rife with corruption and there is little opportunity for employment for young adults. It probably wouldn’t be much if any better in the United States, but it couldn’t be worse.  It is overlooked by the frightened right that these are asylum-seekers looking for safe refuge, not a ravening Mongol horde bent on rape and pillage.

 

The right-wingers claim that the refugee caravan carries deadly diseases that will overwhelm the United States with pestilence. Does anyone remember when our forebears traveled up the Missouri River and deliberately furnished Native Americans with smallpox contaminated blankets?  That was genocidal reality but today it’s political scare tactics just it as is the claim that the caravan is a murderous mob when in reality the mob is our own brutal right wingers wishing they had Trump’s 20 foot tall wall to hide behind.

 

On a sultry summer evening some years back a group of us gathered in the street at Sedalia and watched as a dark green cloud loomed over the city and someone said, “I’ve never seen a tornado but that sure looks like one building up. And if it isn’t I’d be surprised— not to mention, scared to death.” We opted to go down a flight of stairs into a basement which just happened to be a bar, and we rode out the storm and indeed, there was a tornado just south of town.  We had averted disaster, helped along by the cooling and soothing application of beer. I don’t advocate taking a sixpack to the polling place, but you might consider having one on hand at home after you finish voting.

 

That dark green cloud springs to mind immediately when I consider that on November 6 an ominous green cloud known as election day will loom over us. It has the potential, I think, either to devastate the country or to wash away many of the nation’s political ills with a healing rain and no whirlwind of destruction.

 

I’ve said and I firmly believe that this is the most important election I’ve ever voted in since the first where I was eligible in 1956. Never have we faced so many threats to our democracy and only a record and overwhelming turnout of voters will decide whether the country will continue as we have known and cherished it for more than 240 years. We can’t erase the transgressions of the past but we can amend the transgressions of the present.

VOTE

 

 

 

 

 

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