Sunday, April 17, 2016

Roses and Wildflowers and Love Sweet Love: Merle Haggard's Last Years

Famous country singer Merle Haggard died on April 6th, his 79th birthday. I'm not a great country fan but I like some of it sometimes. I don't listen to much music as a regular thing, and I hate any kind of music as background because it imposes its own atmosphere on everything, but I will sometimes binge-listen for many hours or even days to a particular musician or kind of music, and then not listen to anything again for months.

Since Merle Haggard's death I've listened to more of his music than I ever did before, even got interested enough to read his autobiography, My House of Memories. He's a riveting character, a true original according to most experts on country music, "the real deal" who sang honestly of emotional experiences most people would try to gloss over.

He also sang gospel songs as many country singers do, and claimed a Christian faith despite a lifetime of over-the-top sinfulness that as far as anyone could tell from the usual publicity about him he never repented of. I did have to read his autobiography to consider the possibility that maybe he did, maybe he did die a Christian in true faith and repentance. I hope so of course. I can't know for sure but there's more there than you could tell from the publicity about him in general.

Most of his autobiography is about his bad-boy days of running away from home beginning at age fourteen, riding the rails, car-stealing, burglary, escape from seventeen penal institutions, ending with time in San Quentin at the age of twenty, before he determined to turn his life around, gave up crime and became a successful singer. After that came the more standard noncriminal sins, four marriages that ended in divorce, adulteries, gambling, drunkenness and drugs.

As he says in his autobiography most men want to know about his music and his background, most women want to know about his music and his ex-wives. Well, I'm true to the portrait of the women, but it's not easy to find out about his ex-wives, just bits and pieces here and there. There's more about his second wife, Bonnie Owens, because she remained his backup singer and a friend until she died, but it took a while to find out about the others. There is a documentary about his life at You Tube, Learning to Live With Myself, that I didn't see until after I'd read his book, that does cover more of that information than other sources, and finally gives some sense of the women he married; also of other people in his life that he talks about in the book, including his sister.

But the most interesting one is his fifth and last wife, Theresa, who was in her early twenties when he met her in his late forties. There are pictures of them together at Google Image but you can't tell a lot about a person from such pictures. Still, the fact that they were married for twenty-three years (and had been together for a total of something like thirty-two years altogether) says a lot in the context of so many failed marriages. I had the thought that she must have dedicated herself to making him happy, and guess what, that comes through in the autobiography but even more so in the documentary Learning to Live With Myself. Of course he was a lot older by then, which may have something to do with his ability to stay married.

But a lot of credit has to go to Theresa I think in the end. In the You Tube video she even says that when she met him she saw him as a man who had everything but wasn't happy, and had the thought that she could make him happy. In his book he says of her that her every thought was to attend to and please her family. She comes across as a very sympathetic person and I'm glad I found out more about her. She sounds like a true Proverbs 31 wife, the kind scripture describes as more valuable than rubies.

In his book he describes a life of unusual happiness with his wife and family since he married Theresa, in a "homey" home of family life with her and their two children, in a house surrounded by "roses and wildflowers" where they homeschooled their children, fished together for bass in ponds he had dug on their land, and she grew a vegetable garden. A life without the stress of the other marriages, a place he wanted to be instead of always wanting to run.

It was also a life where they prayed every day and read the Bible together as a family.

And that part is most of what I wanted to know. He finally reveals that bit near the end of the book. He says God took away the drug addiction that had plagued both of them before they had their children, and I can only hope He also gave them repentance and faith to eternal life.

I am very glad he found such happiness in the last part of his life, and I wish a blessed eternity to Merle Haggard and all his loved ones.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A trio of feathered characters

Photographer:  Gregorio Borgia.

This picture accompanied the story of the attack by a seagull and a crow on two "peace doves" released from the Vatican last January.   I did a blog post on the subject at the time. But here I'm not interested in the story but in the birds themselves, or the photograph itself.

I liked the picture so much I've had it as my desktop image ever since. I've continued to be fascinated with it and have come to appreciate it more and more as I look at it.  It has come to seem to me that this couldn't be a more perfect artistic creation than if the photographer had personally posed all the elements in it, and yet it's one of the most spontaneous shots you'll ever see.  Three birds in flight caught at a beautifully orchestrated moment.

I love everything about it, the composition itself, the way the colors and forms work together, and especially the character of the birds themselves.  What amazing personalities those three birds are!  I try to forget the fact that the aggressor birds are trying to kill the little doves, and in a series of pictures that also accompanied the story it looks like the seagull has seriously hurt or possibly already killed one of them.  So here I'm looking at only the purely visual or abstract qualities in the picture.  This dove is still alive and fleeing though the crow is in hot pursuit. 

Isn't it beautiful how the whole picture is shades of gray from white to black?  Isn't it beautiful how there is one pure white bird, one pure black bird and another that has both black and white and shades of gray in its feathers?  Isn't it beautiful the way the scalloped flaring feathers of the dove and crow echo the fluting on the column behind them, and the seagull's fluted feathers too?  The way the background seems to frame the action in front of it?   The perfect spacing between the birds in flight?  Surely this picture was planned! And yet it wasn't.

Then there are those magnificent personalities.  What an innocent vulnerable little white bird the dove is.  Its wings are held in a graceful position like a ballet dancer's, its tail feathers are a perfect scalloped arc.  It has a pudgy belly though, a bird that likes the sedentary life.

Then that crow closing in on the dove with its beak open to bite it, all energy and purpose.  Look at the lean mean torso on that creature in contrast with the dove's pudginess.  He must have a crow's version of sculpted abs and pecs beneath those feathers.  And the wings, not gracefully posed but pushing and pulling the air in the pursuit of his prey, working hard.

Then that magnificent thug of a seagull.  He makes me laugh.  Shoulders hunched, head down, a hoodlum, a gangster, up to no good, pumping his wings in pursuit of what must be the other dove off screen. 

I love them all, and I love the photograph.  Just wanted to share it.  Enjoy.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Three cooks is perfect

W toasted the English muffins, J shepherded the poached eggs and Canadian bacon, and I made the hollandaise.

I'd found a recipe online from a Name cook because I didn't want to rely on my usual winging-it proportions. This had to be Perfect for this summer brunch we were concocting for three adults and two children. Unsalted butter, more egg yolks than I usually use, and less lemon. I'll remember it because the proportions were perfect. W thought it needed more lemon, being used to my flight-by-seat-of-pants versions so I'll keep that in mind too, but J and I were happy with it as is. I also broke all eight eggs for poaching into a dish and dumped the entire collection into the poaching water without breaking a single yolk -- pat pat.

This all started with J wanting to know how to save a curdled hollandaise, which became the excuse to treat ourselves to Eggs Benedict. Of course, there being about a tenth of a degree of difference between Hot Enough to Thicken and Hot Enough to Curdle, it DID curdle, and I did have to scramble to save it, beating it madly while adding cream, but the point was demonstrated and we had velvety smooth thick hollandaise in the end.

That was fun. I think Collaborative Eggs Benedict will probably become a tradition for End of Summer brunch, rotating roles each time.

The reason all this is particularly a big deal for me is that before I had my hip replacement I couldn't stand at the stove long enough to make hollandaise sauce.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Good Green Beef

I seem to be on a Foodie thing. Was recently remembering how, many many years ago, I went into a small neighborhood grocery store in the upscale part of town looking for a good steak from their butcher counter. It had to be a special occasion but I don't remember what. The butcher recommended a piece of steak in the display case that! Well, faintly greenish at least.

I expressed consternation.

He told me they are best that way and I'd never find one as good in the supermarket because people don't know about the finer points of aged beef and will only buy them when they are red. Hm. Well, I thought to myself, maybe he's right and why would he want to sell me something bad? This IS a really good part of town and wealthy people come in here all the time and see the meat in the case, so ... he's got to be right.

Long story short: I bought it, I cooked it, I ate it and it was the best steak I've ever had. Tender, juicy, tasty meat, seared on the outside, pink on the inside. I've always remembered that experience every time I've bought red steaks at the supermarket. But I never went looking for greenish steaks in spite of the fond memory of that one.

Fast forward some, oh, forty-five years or so. Thinking about it again recently reminded me that a friend had gone through a phase as a butcher many years ago, so I decided to tell him the story of my experience with the greenish steak and ask him what he thought. Well, there went a pleasant memory. He reminded me of all the training he'd gone through learning how to "break down" a carcass of beef (meaning divide it into all the familiar cuts), how to age the meat, how you have to use the best grade of meat to do it right, how his butcher shop had customers who would buy the whole animal and let the shop age it properly for them. They hang it at 33 degrees for a few weeks, sometimes wrapping it in linen cheesecloth. You have to remember, he said, that it's rotting, that's what aging is. Well, that kind of takes the glamor out of it right there. It does make for tender tasty beef though, he added.

BUT, he said, NO, you do not want green meat, that means it's gone bad, that's not just aging, that's bacteria. That butcher obviously just wanted to sell a bad piece of meat and I'm lucky I didn't get sick from it.

Oh dear. Well, I know he knows what he's talking about BUT. That steak was SO good I can't bring myself to believe him entirely. It spoiled a nice memory though and I probably won't ever have a greenish steak again.

Ripe Fruit

I usually shop at Smith's, a habit that started when I was working in the neighborhood, and now find it hard to break just because learning the aisles of a new store is more than my lazy self wants to take on. Well, there is a bit more to it than that. Smith's has the biggest collection of electric carts for the handicapped of any store in town and I need it because of arthritic hips and knees. I can still push a basket, basically using it as a prop, but I can't really do a big shopping trip that way so I do appreciate having a cart. But of course all the people in town who need a cart go to Smith's for that reason, so if you don't get there early enough all the carts will be in service already, and all the handicap parking spaces will be gone too. I hardly ever get a handicap parking space though I do usually snag a cart. A few times I've had to wait for one.

Walmart has put many of the other local stores out of business, even the chain stores. Maybe that's a bad thing but I'm not entirely sure. Safeway went a couple years ago, before that Scolari's, Albertson's was replaced by Sak N Save. I'm not sure why Smith's has held on because they really aren't that good a store. Produce especially is low quality.

Despite having to push a basket at Walmart, and the fact that the store is ten times the size of Smith's, I'm usually glad for the occasional trip there just because their produce is GOOD. High turnover is the reason, they say, but honestly, if Smith's made the effort to have good produce they'd soon have the high turnover. I remember about five years ago when they happened to have a wonderful stock of ripe peaches. Wonderfully perfectly ripe, you could smell them from aisles away. The produce section was mobbed with people getting them in huge bags, and I was one of the mob. If they kept getting good produce they'd keep getting the mobs, I don't know why they don't know that. Good ripe peaches are a luxury around here. Too many stores, not just Smith's, get them too green and they just rot instead of ripening. But a ripe peach, yum! It will last a few days in the fridge and it's such a treat.

Because my car wouldn't start a few days ago I got a ride to Wal-Mart with someone who was going there, one of those rare trips, and again I was reminded that they have good produce and again I think how I should make the effort to go there more often, knowing I don't because it's too much of a hassle. But for that occasion I was happy. Yes, even peaches, not fully ripe yet but you could tell they were going to ripen instead of rotting because they were yellow, not green, in the stem well, and they SMELLED like ripe peaches. Oh joy. Then the strawberries -- red on the top of the container and red on the bottom too! They are often as much as 50% yellow or white at Smith's. But today no rotting ones either, smelled like... ripe strawberries! Oh joy and a half! Oh and then the asparagus! Smith's doesn't even get much asparagus any more and when they do nobody wants to buy it. And big fat red tomatoes! And ripe mangoes!

Why am I writing this? Maybe it's that small pleasures can make up for big bad moods. At least I can dare to eat a peach. As long as my fruit fly trap is working as well, this is Sheer Happiness.

Smarter Than the Average Fruit Fly

Every summer the little pests invade my kitchen.  All it takes is an apple core in the trash or maybe even a lone piece of peel left in the sink.  Or maybe they are misnamed and the asparagus ends, the avocado pit and the potato and carrot peelings are just as enticing to them.  The summer heat does the rest and I soon have a cloud of them writhing over the sink. 

You can off a few of them by clapping your wet hands in the middle of the cloud, but that's a pretty inefficient method.  So every year I consult the wisdom of the internet for advice on how to get rid of them.  I'm never very convinced of the advice -- vinegar? -- so my attempts to apply it are rather halfhearted and I don't stick it out very long.  I usually end up just taking out the trash and subjecting the kitchen sink, garbage can and garbage disposal to extreme sterilization, which eventually works.

But this year I decided to give the internet advisors a better trial, and ended up combining a few of the suggestions into one. Burning incense and sucking them up into a hair dryer or a vacuum are methods of extermination mentioned but I decided to go with the baited trap instead.  Rotting fruit and apple cider vinegar are the main lures suggested on the web but also wine and beer.   So I started with a small bowl of water with a splash of apple cider vinegar in it, absurd though the idea of catching flies with vinegar strikes me.   Not really believing it would work I added a pinch of sugar and a tiny piece of apple and felt more optimistic about it as a lure.  It's not clear if the flies are to drown in the liquid or be killed by its toxicity or what, but I started with water assuming maybe the former and not wanting to waste my cider vinegar.  The advisors also tell you that dish soap will kill them, and that they can't detect it, so I added a drop of that too.  One suggests cutting off the corner of a plastic bag and rubber-banding it to a glass of your chosen lure, the idea being that the flies will be drawn down into the hole, attracted by their sense of smell, and not be able to find their way out, not being terribly bright.  My adaptation of that advice was to cut a small hole, about a third of an inch or so, in the middle of a piece of clear clingy plastic wrap and stretch it tight over the rim of my little bowl.  Left it on the counter near the sink.

Nothing happened the first day.  The second day I had about four flies dead in the liquid.  A couple days later there were a dozen, a few days after that over twenty and now after a couple of weeks the count is in the forties. 

The method works. 

What I'd like to know now is which elements of the method work.  Does the vinegar really lure them?  Could I dispense with the sugar and the apple piece?  I'm pretty sure of the dish soap and I'd rather poison them than have them drown, perhaps a misguided mercy.  Is the plastic wrap necessary or would they dive right into the lethal mix without it?

Later: It's now about a week after my last report and the liquid is so cloudy I can't see the flies at the bottom of the bowl.  But one thing for sure is that they aren't writhing over the sink any more.  I guess I could throw out the cloudy water and start over but why mess with a good thing?  I think I'll wait to see if the kitchen remains free of them before making any changes.  Not being up to conducting the scientific experiments necessary to finding out if there is a simplest most streamlined trap, since I know this combo works I'm going to keep this recipe for now. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is there an easy way to quit smoking?

I heard about a book recently that is recommended for people who want to quit smoking, Allen Carr's The Easyway to stop smoking.  It was a very low key recommendation:
Go to a book store and buy Allen Carr's "The Easyway to stop smoking". It's a slim volume and written in simple english (and other languages I gather). Read a couple of chapters a day, follow the simple instructions and in a couple of weeks you'll be a non-smoker. A happy non-smoker that is. He instructs you to continue smoking while you read - how easy can it be! 
There is no willpower required nor trickery involved. Just the truth about cigarettes.
Here are a few posts from iano,  the guy who recommended the book    I see he recommended it first a few years ago, and then again recently when the thread was revived.  He emphasizes that the way is really EASY, that the usual struggle people have when they quit just doesn't happen with this method.

Reading the intro and some reviews of the book at Amazon it seems to me that Allen Carr has really hit on something. Testimony after testimony of giving up smoking with an amazing ease. Although I quit years ago I am very curious about this method and would like to read the book, so I will when I can.

I used to be a heavy smoker and tried to quit time after time as smokers often do, as the intro to this book also affirms. When I was out of cigarettes I'd do the usual rummaging through the garbage to find a bit of a butt to smoke, I'd throw out partial packs, even drown them in water to make them unsmokeable, then find myself going down to the Seven Eleven at midnight to get another pack.

 I did manage to quit for two years once and it was exactly as the author describes, a daily struggle that made going back to it inevitable when life got a little more stressful.

When I did quit it was at a Christian seminar where we were asked to pray about something we thought the Lord would want us to get out of our lives. I prayed to give up smoking. When I got in my car after the seminar I automatically lit up the half-smoked cigarette I'd left in the ashtray and smoked it down to the filter, thinking the whole time "Why am I doing this after praying to stop?"

 I don't know what made it possible but that was the last cigarette I ever smoked. And the urge was gone gone gone, never had the slightest desire after that.

That was in August of 1989.

 So I'm wondering if whatever happened to me psychologically that made it so easy for me to quit through prayer was similar to what happens to people who quit with such ease from this book. I'd like to find out.

 I mean of course God changed my desire to smoke because I did pray, but I'm talking here about the psychological component of it, HOW He changed my desire, what mental change occurred that made it possible to simply put cigarettes absolutely out of mind as I did from then on.

Later: The above was my reaction to hearing about the Allen Carr book and I've been pondering the psychological aspect of it since then.  I haven't read more of the book than the introduction but I think I've figured it out:  What the book does is the same thing God did for me: gives you a clear unconflicted DESIRE to stop smoking.  I still want to read the book when I can but as I was thinking over how easy it was for me to quit after so many years of frustrating struggle it seemed to me that what happened was that I absolutely simply no longer wanted to smoke. 

When people talk about it taking "will power" to quit, it implies the struggle so many experience, and what that means in reality is a divided will, a will only partly dedicated to quitting, against another part of your will that doesn't want to quit at all.  That's why it's such a struggle, you're in a fight with yourself.  When I finally quit it wasn't that my will wasn't involved, it was that my will was 100% devoted to quitting for the first time ever.  If the mere thought of a cigarette came to mind I shoved it out of my mind instantly with all the energy of my undivided will, without any struggle at all because I did not want anything to do with cigarettes. And it only very rarely came to mind even in the early days, and after that just about never.  Desire to smoke was gone, "need" to smoke was gone.  So I'm saying  So in reality I HAD will power for the first time, and when you have it the whole thing is easy.  NO struggle, NO edginess or nervousness, NO steeling yourself, NO crabbiness.

If this is what it's all about, the idea that smoking is an addiction to a drug is even called into question.  Seems to me the addiction is to the whole psychological experience of smoking.  You experience it in a positive way despite the unpleasant aspects that keep making you want to quit, and when you stop seeing anything positive about it, it's just gone without a fight. 

So I'm not entirely sure how this book goes about it but I'd bet that's WHAT it does.  Somehow or other by the time you're finished reading it you are 100% in favor of quitting for the first time ever.  No struggle, just blessed freedom. 

Realized I never really said how I lost the desire to smoke, what turned my will so completely against it. I think it was a combination of wanting to please God, hating to be the only smoker in a Christian group, having to draw attention to myself by going outside to smoke; just wanting to be "normal" like all the nonsmokers; hating smelling like a smoker; being ashamed of it overall I suppose; but all the health reasons too. Not that any of that entered my mind at the time, I'm only trying to reconstruct it in retrospect and all those things NOW make me happy I don't smoke. Glad glad glad to be able to breathe again, glad not to be controlled by a habit that makes me spend money on something I really don't like doing; and that's a big part of it too: for all the liking of smoking, I really DIDN'T like smoking, it's unpleasant, it hurt my chest, I was always out of breath, it caused and aggravated a lump on my lip that sometimes hurt, and so on.

All those reasons I'm glad I no longer smoke I now think were behind my giving it up so easily even if I wasn't all that conscious of it at the time. Most of that was there in my previous efforts to quit too, however, so there may still be a question how it all came together all at once in such a total way.

So some time I'd like to read that book and see how my experience compares with their method.