Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving At The Homestead; The Wynfield Creek Years

The biggest change in most people’s holiday traditions typically results from marriage. Two completely different, often conflicting, sets of traditions have to be consolidated, mashed-up and ironed out. This process is even more difficult if the parents of the person you are marrying are divorced, which means you essentially have to merge THREE different sets of traditions. For the first several years Janet and I were married, we lived in The Little House on the Highway, which was not quite half-way between my parents’ house in Port Clinton and hers in Ft. Wayne. The first year, Janet’s mother actually came and had Thanksgiving dinner with us at my parents’ house. Back then, I was working as manager of a retail store, and while I had Thanksgiving day off for the first time in years, I would be putting in 14 hour days the rest of the holiday weekend, so it was impractical for me to travel anywhere. Once I got out of retail and into a more sane holiday work schedule, we began alternating Thanksgivings, typically spending Thanksgiving day with one family and then the day after with the other. The Ft. Wayne festivities were generally held at Janet’s sister’s house and not at one of her parents’. Her sister’s house was larger and also had the advantage of not showing “favoritism” toward one parent or the other. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the Ft. Wayne Thanksgivings more than the Port Clinton ones, which by this point, due to the size of the extended family and some “personalities and issues,” had become something of a theater of the absurd.

In 1995, Janet and I moved to Charlotte and settled into the Wynfield Creek Homestead. We hadn’t really given much thought to how this would effect the Thanksgiving tradition, and the first year, we decided to just keep on as we had, albeit with a much longer drive over the river and through the woods. The drive north wasn’t too bad. We left our house around 9:00 AM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and arrived at my parents’ house around 8:00 that night. Thanksgiving day was perfectly ordinary. On Friday we drove to Ft. Wayne and had another Thanksgiving dinner with Janet’s sister and her family. Early Sunday morning, we left on the return trip and that’s when things turned ugly in the form of 500 miles of bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic. We pulled up to our driveway around midnight, turned to each other and said in unison, “okay, never doing that again.”

Consequently, the next year we went off in search of our own North Carolina Thanksgiving tradition. We couldn’t see the value in cooking a whole turkey for just the two of us, so I fell back on the “Thanksgiving dinner out” concept from my days at the CIC, with a touch of Manly Outdoor Activity for good measure. We spent the first part of that Thanksgiving hiking at Lake Norman State Park, then had dinner at Cracker Barrel. It was an okay arrangement, but not very Thanksgiving-y.

The next year, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a colleague at the software company where I worked. With no other particularly good options, we accepted. I’d love to tell you more about that day, but honestly I don’t remember. My colleague was such a good host that my wine glass remained completely full for the whole day. I have no idea how much I actually drank, but I recall at one point wanting to stand up and realizing that I couldn’t.

In 1998, I took a job with another firm and was immediately introduced to a new Thanksgiving tradition, the Turkey Trot. I was told that everyone from the office ran in this annual event on Thanksgiving morning at the South Park Mall. I hadn’t run much since college, but certainly didn’t want to be the odd man out at my new firm, so I started training for what I initially thought was a 5K. About two weeks before the event, I learned that it was actually an 8K, which doesn’t sound like a huge difference; unless you are barely making it the 5K. For those who are metrically challenged, it’s the difference between 3 miles and 5 miles. Finally, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving I made the full 5 miles under 55 minutes (which I perceived to be a slow, but not embarrassing pace) for the first time. I was ready. Of course, on the actually day, everybody else from the office begged out of the race for one reason or another, leaving me to run all by myself.

I ran in the Turkey Trot for the next several years until my bad knees finally caught up with me. During those years, we alternated between cooking a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner at home, occasionally joined by Janet’s father, having Thanksgiving dinner at the very CIC-like North Harbor Club, or joining our friends, Steve and Fern Dallas, for their family dinner.

Sometime around 2005 or 2006, a local radio station offered free Charlotte Bobcats tickets for the night before Thanksgiving to anyone bringing a frozen turkey to their station to donate to a local homeless shelter. That sounded like a neat idea and a new tradition was born. For whatever reason, the Bobcats - now Hornets - tend to play a home game on the night before Turkey Day. I think they have done so 5 of the past 7 years, and when they do, Janet and I are at the game.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mean Estate: Thanksgiving Short Fiction

By the last week of November, the hills of western Virginia have gone a mossy brown. From twenty-five thousand feet, they resemble nothing so much as the rough, irregular hide of an alligator mottled with the bright white crescents or ovals or s-shapes of ski resorts awaiting the early-season crowds.

The plane is a turboprop Dornier 328, the workhorse of US Airways commuter fleet, and standard equipment from Pittsburgh to Greensboro. It is cramped and noisy, a plane he knows well. The FASTEN SEAT BELT sign blinks twice, and before the flight attendant begins her “tray tables and seat backs” announcement, he begins stowing his laptop for the initial descent into the Piedmont Triad airport. He knows to do this because he makes this flight nearly every week, and has for nearly as long as he cares to remember.

On the ground in Greensboro, he rolls his single carry-on bag out of the terminal, past the cascading fountain and out into the crowded parking lot. It’s a sunny day, seasonable, twenty degrees warmer than the wintry morning he left behind in Cleveland. His Ford Crown Victoria, (“company car,” he would add, apologizing) waits for him in the space where he parked it forty-five hours before. If it were capable of speaking, it might question why he is back so early this trip. But it is just twenty-three hundred pounds of steel, glass, rubber and plastic. It does not know today is the day before Thanksgiving and that all good business travelers are either home already, or well on their way. For him it’s the latter, as there’s still the matter of the hour drive from the airport to his suburban home.

Leaving the airport and merging onto the highway, he checks his voicemail, and finds, as expected, only one message, from his wife, Claire, reminding him to pick up a bottle of wine for the Scanlon’s. A glance at his watch confirms that it is after four o’clock, and that the business world is winding down for the long holiday weekend. A quick call to the office reassures him that there are no last minute fires to be doused or feathers to be smoothed. He turns the radio up and cruises west, eventually taking the Hargersville exit and turning south onto the wide tree-lined boulevard.

The Wine Shop is located in a cluster of gray clapboard buildings designed, to the folly of the Boston-based developers, to resemble a New England whaling village; or at least a New England tourist destination designed to look like a whaling village. They retail space is called The Shoppes at Pequod Landing; Pequod Landing being the subdivision where his house, 4BD/3BT 3500 SQFT, sits on its pie-shaped wedge of cul-de-sac; Lanyard Court. The Shoppes consist of a dozen small retail establishments, a Blockbuster, a Domino’s pizza, a candy store, a pharmacy, a card shop... all bobbing in the sea of asphalt that washes upon the shores of the Harris Teeter grocery store. It’s cheerfully upscale and painstakingly inauthentic. On this day, at this hour, the lot is packed with minivans and sport-utes, and he is silently grateful that he does not have to fight the rush of last-minute turkey-and-yam-seekers descending on the Teeter. For the first time since Claire suggested -- insisted actually -- on having Thanksgiving dinner with the Scanlon’s, he sees the value in letting someone else do the leg-work.

A circuit of the lot reveals an open spot a few spaces down from The Wine Shop’s door, directly in front of The Ribbonry. Apparently there are few last minute lace and bow shoppers today, and he quickly tucks the “Vic” in between a monstrous Suburban and a Mercedes sedan. Inside, Fred, the shop owner, finishes up with a couple who are clearly planning one heck of an boozy extravaganza for turkey day, but gives a courteous nod of acknowledgement as he ushers them and their case of clanking bottles toward the Suburban.

“Dan,” the shopkeeper says warmly, “let, me guess; looking for something that goes with turkey and cranberries?” He says this with a cheerful, off-the-cuff, nonchalance that Dan is certain has been the go-to greeting for the past week.

“That sounds about right.” Dan says, actually quite impressed that Fred remembers his name; he is hardly a regular. “We’re having Thanksgiving dinner with some business associates of Claire’s; some folks new in town from Chicago.”

“Ah,” the short, balding man says knowingly, as he heads off toward a stack of crates near the front of the store. “This Kongsgaard Syrah is a good choice. It has strong spice and black pepper qualities with some smokiness, a smooth finish, and just enough “sticker” to impress,” he continued, holding the bottle out boldly so that the three-figure price was clearly visible. It was an expensive bottle, at least by Dan’s standards, but he knew that Claire would want something nice.

“That sounds like just the ticket.”

“Great. If it’s a hostess gift, I have some nice wrap and ribbon, I could pretty it up a bit.”

“Sure. That would be great,” Dan offers while absently wondering if the ribbon came from The Ribbonry next door.

- -

Thanksgiving Day dawns clear and warm, with the temperature pushing 70 by the time Dan and Claire leave for the Scanlon’s, just after noon. Bill and Veronica Scanlon live near uptown in a fashionable older neighborhood called Berwick, where modest two bedroom bungalows on postage-stamp plots of land easily fetch three-quarters of a million dollars. Claire navigates from hand-written instructions Veronica scrawled the day before. New in town and working from memory, Veronica mislabeled a critical turn, and the result was an increasingly frustrating tour of the side streets and back roads of Berwick, heightened by Claire’s refusal to call for directions because that would require her to admit that Veronica’s directions were wrong to start with.

After thirty minutes of trial and error, Dan coaxes the “Vic” to a stop in the driveway. The skies have clouded over, but it is still warm, “more like Labor Day than Thanksgiving,” Dan thinks, as they make their way up the quaint cobblestone path toward the front door. Clearly, the Scanlon’s have been waiting impatiently for them, as Claire’s knock is greeted almost simultaneously by the opening of the door. Alarm bells ring in Dan’s head as he gets his first look at his hosts. Bill Scanlon is tall and handsome, five or six years older, but trim and fit in a casually athletic way that Dan has never been and will never be. His tanned face contrasting pleasantly with his close-cut silver hair. He is dressed in a short-sleeved black silk polo shirt and silver-gray silk and wool slacks that make Dan think of cool stone lining the walls of some hidden canyon. He wears no socks under black Gucci loafers. Veronica is outfitted in a little black dress that Dan suspects cost more than the Vic. For his part, Dan wore a blue and green plaid Lands End shirt and khaki Dockers. He supposed he should have inquired about dress code, but had never heard of anyone dressing up for Thanksgiving dinner this side of the freaking White House.

Greetings and introductions are exchanged as the couples make their way through the small foyer into the living room. The house, a contemporary design from the 1960’s is painted sparkling white throughout and decorated in a style which could charitably called minimalist. Dan is almost seated before he remembers the bottle of wine in his hand and thrusts it awkwardly toward his hosts.

“Oh, thank you,” Bill says with a forced sincerity that is both practiced and unconvincing. “This is a great little winery. Have you tried their Merlot? ‘Roni and I stopped by there on our annual Napa wine buying trip; what was it dear, two years ago?”

“No,” Dan answers quite truthfully, and unable to think of anything else meaningful to add babbles a short and disjointed series of comments about The Wine Shop and the half dozen random bottles he has purchased there, mostly as gifts, over the past few months.

“Hmmm,” Bill responds, feigning interest, or at least acknowledgement. “Well, let’s get this bottle open, shall we. I normally like to let a bottle breathe for at least half an hour. Can I get you something to drink in the meantime?”

“Uhm, sure. Scotch?”

“Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish okay?” It is more a statement than a question.

“Uhm, sure.”

Bill walks over to the small bar and pours the drinks. Claire had deserted them, heading into the kitchen with Veronica, and he is left in the living room with Bill and his expensive scotch.

“This…” Dan scans the room, which to him resembles a museum of modern art he once visited in New York, “is very nice.”

“Oh, thanks.” Bill says with the mock humility understood to mean, IT IS IMPRESSIVE, ISN’T IT. “We brought a lot of our decor down from Chicago. It was a real trick to get it all to work in this space, but I think Roni’s done a super job. So, I understand you’re involved in plumbing somehow?”

“Well, actually, my company makes industrial valves and fittings.” He considers adding, “I’m a regional sales manager,” but doesn’t want to sound pretentious.



“And I understand that you’re in banking?”

“I’m the Southeast Regional Vice-President for Midwest Savings Trust.”

So much for pretentious.



And more silence.

A voice from the other room announces that dinner is served. The dining room is equally white, the furniture equally severe, the art equally funky. In one corner stands an abstract sculpture that, at first glance, appears to be a horse being devoured by huge tentacled creatures. Dan doesn’t hazard a second glance.

The two couples sit in bright chrome and black leather chairs surrounding a glass and chrome table. Bill closes his eyes and extends his arms, prompting everyone to join hands. The room is eerily silent for what Dan thinks is an absurdly long time, then Bill begins an incantation of grace the like of which Dan had never heard before. He doesn’t catch it all, but manages to pluck out references to Mother Earth, the Gods of a Million Stars, and something he thinks might have to do with reruns of Bonanza. Then they sit in complete silence for another minute, maybe two, before Bill finally breaks the trance like mood.

If Dan had been uncomfortable earlier, he is in shock now. Closer inspection of the food spread out on the table reveals nothing he recognizes. In the center of the table is a large brownish clot. Beside it is a bowl of what appears to be purple rice, and a bowl of what appears to be red broccoli.

Where the hell do these people shop, Whoville, Dan wonders?

Another bowl, already being passed from Veronica to Claire contains a mixture of red and white beans. Bill stands and begins “carving” long gelatinous hunks from the congealed brown mass. “White or dark, Dan?” he asks with a wry grin, and motions for Dan’s plate. It was coming to Dan now. He knows what this is. He read about it somewhere, maybe one of those fitness magazines at the club.

“Is that Tofurky?” he asks, hoping not to belie his revulsion.

“Nothing but; fat-free 100% vegetable protein,” Bill responds with a smile, still holding out his hand for Dan’s plate.

He shoots Claire a quick glance and her return stare communicates the new theme for the day. Eat it! Eat it all! Don’t say a damn word! Eat the goddamn Tofurkey!

Dan dutifully hands his plate over and is rewarded with an extra large portion. The remainder of the bowls are passed and soon Dan’s plate is covered with small piles of the purported food. Dan is relieved, quite relieved actually, to find that the mystery meal is merely bland and gummy, not wholly inedible.

Conversation is a bit smoother now that there are four people to carry the load. Things are beginning to wind down and Dan thinks he might be able to stick it out, possibly even get home for the end of the Cowboys game, when the other shoe drops in the form of Bill’s leading question, “so, have either of you ever heard of The Power of the Cosmos?”

Neither Dan nor Claire have. Fortunately, Bill and Veronica have some brochures, and a nicely produced three hour video which covers the basics; the essence of which is that one can achieve total enlightenment by becoming one with Mother Earth, Sister Moon and, yes, the Gods of the Stars. And best of all, this “oneness” can be arranged on the installment plan.

By the time Dan and Claire engineer a departure, complete with much hugging and a promise to call after they had thought over “their place in the cosmos,” the sky is dark and a chill wind has swirled up.

The first ten minutes of the ride pass in silence. Claire is the first to speak.

“Well, that was interesting.”

“Interesting, INTERESTING? That was a freaking carnival sideshow! I’m still trying to figure out what half that stuff we ate was supposed to be. Mother Earth, Sister Moon, Star Gods? Throw in a witch and a gypsy and we could have had Thanksgiving dinner with Stevie Nicks!!!”

“Oh, they’re just a little quirky. Anyway, you seemed like you were having a good time.”

“I’m a salesman for heaven's sake. I sell industrial valves and fittings. Pretending to be interested in stupid shit is what I do. Do you really think I find pressure nozzles fascinating? A Tofurkey, Claire? A Tofurkey? I spend four nights a week in bad hotel rooms and nod off to the local news of some city whose name I’ve forgotten. I eat more meals in Applebees and Ruby Tuesdays than I do in my own home. All I want is to have a nice traditional Thanksgiving meal. It’s really very simple; turkey, dressing, cranberry relish, yams, pumpkin pie. You say grace, you stuff yourself. Afterward you waddle over to the living room sofa and alternate between napping and football -- always the Lions, always the Cowboys -- next to a roaring fire. Maybe later you have a second piece of pie. If you want to be adventurous, you add a little horseradish to the cranberries or maybe, just maybe, pecan pie instead of pumpkin. But tofu and genetically altered broccoli, Claire, I DON’T THINK SO!!!”

The rest of the drive passes in silence.

Once home, Dan pours himself an oversize tumbler of Johnny Walker, lights the gas logs in the fireplace and settles back in his leather recliner. He surfs distractedly up and down the cable, pausing for a few minutes to watch sharks on the Discovery Channel and something about Japanese submarines on THC. On his way back up toward E!, something catches his eye. In a black and white New York, a jolly old man in a tailored suit walks briskly down the street. Dan knows this man, this film; MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Back in Ohio, where he grew up, the local television station broadcast MIRACLE every Thanksgiving. He has seen it maybe half a dozen times, but not since he was a teen. He takes a sip of scotch and places the remote on the side table; watching, fascinated, as the images burned deep into his childhood psyche refreshed themselves from the screen. By the time a pre-pubescent Natalie Wood is doing her monkey impression, an idea is germinating in his mind, and by the time Maureen O’Hara and John Payne find Kriss’s cane in the corner of the country house, he is filled with a warm glow that was part scotch and part nostalgia. He flicks the television off and shuffles unsteadily off to bed, whispering to Claire as he slides in beside her, “this year Claire, we’re going to have a real Christmas, traditional, just like when we were kids.”

“Sure, honey, good night,” she says as she sleepily kisses his cheek and rolls onto her side. Little does she know those will be the last rational words spoken in that house for a month.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lasagna Gardening Might Be The Answer To The Question You Didn't Know To Ask

For the homeowner who doesn't spend hours each week immersed in gardening journals, tweets and blogs, the term "lasagna garden" probably conjures up visions of tidy plots of Italian herbs and Roma tomatoes. But lasagna in this case refers to the process, not the product, of the garden. Also known as "kill mulch" or "sheet mulch" gardening, lasagna gardening is a no-till method which uses layers of mulch and compost to create a stratified growing medium while simultaneously enhancing the underlying soil.

I stumbled across the idea a few years ago while, ironically, expanding my Square Foot Garden. I wanted to reclaim space for several new raised beds from my lawn and didn't want to use any sort of herbicide to kill the grass. I got the bright idea of cutting the grass as short as my mower would allow, then covering it with a layer of newspaper and several inches of shredded leaves. It was a fall project and effectively allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. My intent was simply to kill the grass in a natural way, but when spring rolled around I was surprised to see that the creeping myrtle from an adjacent bed zoomed in to cover the unused spaces. A little digging on the Internet confirmed that I was not the first to discover this concept and that, in fact, versions of the method had been in use for hundreds of years. Some additional tinkering led me to a system that I am confident is repeatable and will work well for just about any garden situation.

Now, you may be asking, if you are a proponent of Square Foot Gardening (which I am) then why are you promoting a different method? There are two answers to that question. First of all, while you can grow ANYTHING in a Square Foot Garden, some plants are not very practically grown that way. The "umbrella" squashes like zucchini, for instance, are just not well-suited for that method, as even the smaller hybrids will quickly grow to cover an entire raised bed. Second, the initial investment required for a larger Square Foot project can be prohibitive for some gardeners. Yes, it is true that a 4' X 4' Square Foot Garden will produce as much as a larger row garden, but it will also cost around $100 to build. For hobby use, there is a justification for that cost in terms of seed, water and fertilizer savings, but for a larger scale or semi-commercial gardening operation those costs get out of hand very quickly. So, what I have developed for the cost-conscious gardener is something of a hybrid approach which incorporates some of the advantages of the Square Foot method with the minimal investment of the no-till lasagna method.

Fall is the best time to start a lasagna garden, since there is a ready supply of fibrous mulch (shredded leaves) and the time between now and spring planting will give the garden time to "age." As implied by the term no-till, there is no digging required to start, the garden is built on top of the ground. The first step is to lay out the area that will become the garden. Following one of the Square Foot principles, the area can be any length but should be no more than four feet wide -- 4' X 8' or 4' X 10' are good to start -- and there should be at least two feet (I prefer three) between the beds. I use mason's line and landscape pegs to define the area and then use a lawnmower or string trimmer to cut the grass inside the lines as low as possible.

Next, place a layer of newspaper 2 or 3 sheets thick directly on the grass/ground. You will want to wet the newspaper as you are laying it to prevent it from blowing away and to begin the decomposition process. Once the area is completely covered in paper, add a layer of organic material eight to ten inches thick on top. You can use just about any organic material available to you including shredded leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, shredded newspaper, etc. While you should try to have some of both "brown" and "green" materials, there is no particular formula you need to follow. If you are using shredded leaves almost exclusively, however, you may want to add a little blood meal as a source of additional nitrogen. 

Again, to prevent the material from moving and to help start decomposition, wet your "stack" thoroughly at this point. It is okay to leave the stack at this stage for a few days or even a couple of weeks. As the material settles and begins to decompose, the stack will decrease in height and it's okay, although not necessary, to add another couple of inches of mulch as is does.

The next layer can be either a single layer of corrugated cardboard or a layer of newspaper five or six sheets thick. Be sure to use only uncoated cardboard as the glossy type does not decompose well. On top of the cardboard or paper, add a layer of good quality compost two to four inches thick and water the whole stack thoroughly. From this point all you need to do is wait for spring! Your seeds or seedlings will be planted in the compost where they will grow down into the decomposing mulch. Worms will be attracted to the rich organic matter and break up the underlying soil in the process. Weed growth will be minimal, just as in a Square Foot Garden, and you can even use the Square Foot planting rules as a guideline for your lasagna garden. Each fall, a new layer of mulch and compost will be added, maintaining a permaculture cycle. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

It's An Amazing Time To Be A Rural Entrepreneur: Five Unusual Ideas

For my last two years of college, I drove an hour every Friday afternoon from my dorm at Bowling Green State University to my hometown of Port Clinton to work a weekend job and then back again every Sunday evening. The route I took was SR 105, a two-lane country road that roughly traced the path of the Portage River. At about the halfway point, just outside the tiny hamlet of Woodville, I would pass a small enterprise tucked between the road and a 20 foot cliff overlooking the river. While I forget the name, I recall that it was a hunting and fishing outfitter that advertised custom-made fishing rods. I never stopped, because I was always in a hurry to get to my job on Fridays and the shop was closed by the time I would pass late on Sundays, but I was always curious how successful that business could possibly have been, located as it was on a sparsely traveled back road far away from any population center.

That was the mid-1980's and rural businesses faced a variety of marketing challenges that might seem quaint today. To effectively expand his market, the proprietor of that custom rod shop would have had to place expensive print ads in magazines such as Field and Stream or Outdoor Life or travel to fishing and outdoor shows across the country and sell direct. These days, with a couple of clicks of the mouse my custom tackle business can access a global marketplace, be seen by thousands of potential customers and close a sale; all from the comfort of my back deck. It's pretty miraculous when you think of it, and it creates opportunities for rural entrepreneurship which allow modern homesteaders to live the lifestyle they desire while still earning a decent living.

Of course, not all rural businesses have to be Internet-based or the same-old-same-old. Here are five unusual business ideas that rural entrepreneurs might consider:
  1. Goat and Sheep Rentals - People and businesses who have a lot of land and don’t want to spend the time to mow it could potentially use the help of goats or sheep. Solar farms, in particular, are a good market for sheep, since goats tend to want to climb on the panels and occasionally even eat them. You could start your own business where you care for goats and/or sheep and then rent them out for that purpose.
  2. Worm Farming - There are two distinct markets for worms. The first is live bait for fishing the second is to gardeners to help speed composting. 
  3. Garden Sitting - Gardeners like to take vacations too, but the almost constant care required to maintain a large garden during growing season can make getting away for more than a day or two difficult. You could build a business around providing "sitting" services (watering, weeding, pest control) for gardeners while they travel.
  4. Snail Farming - If you have limited space and are looking for a very small, but profitable, type of animal to raise, you might consider snails. It might sound strange, but you can raise snails for use in cooking. And snail slime can also be used by companies for a variety of different purposes.
  5. Rural Coworking Space - A great way to become a rural entrepreneur is by providing a place for other rural entrepreneurs, freelancers and professionals to set up shop. A business could be built around providing just a workspace with a monthly rental fee, or you could provide ala carte services such as coping, bookkeeping and graphic design for your clients.
What are some other off-the-wall ideas for rural entrepreneurship?

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...