Monday, February 28, 2011

Rain Out

Today we started putting fence rails on the new garden fence.  By the time we installed 5 rails, the skies had dropped enough moisture to send us inside, me to work on impending deadlines.  So I've used today to scan a couple thousand pages of court decisions. 

The financial crisis has obviously taken its toll on the courts.  A rash of predatory lending suits lists every possible mortgage-related federal statute, and many state laws, as the basis for laundry lists of claims.  Most complaints illustrate a lack of creativity among plaintiffs and their lawyers.  They're generally so similar they're hardly worthwhile reading.  Mostly, I watch for old theories being adopted by additional jurisdictions.  Now and then an interesting theory appears.  None today, although I felt a bit sorry for one bankruptcy judge who came up with a nonsensical holding based on his decision to look up the meaning of "originate" in an Internet dictionary.  Did he really have no idea that the term has a pretty clear meaning in the mortgage business?  No surprise, his holding was overturned.

The more interesting decisions fell outside mortgage lending.  Did you ever get mad when you missed your credit card payment date by one or two days, maybe because the mail was slow?  Say you always paid your balance in full, except for that one time?  Boom!  Not only did you have to pay interest for the one or two days late, plus maybe a late charge, you also had to pay interest on the entire preceding billing cycle?  Good reason to set up electronic bill payment with the credit card issuer.  Well, in this case, the cardholder's husband walked the payment into the nearest PNC Bank branch on the due date, a Saturday.  Too bad, it wasn't the location specified on the credit card statement, so the payment wasn't posted and credited until Monday.  The bank "correctly" imposed a finance charge for the 2 days, plus the 32 days of the previous billing cycle.  Because the husband took the payment to the wrong place, the bank had up to 5 extra days to process the payment.  Ouch!

Target apparently did something stupid.  Wanting to replace its in-store "Guest" credit cards, it reportedly mailed Target VISA cards to existing and former cardholders.  The cardholders had the option of calling a toll-free number to validate the VISA cards or cutting them up and staying with their Target Guest Cards.  I guess no one reminded Target that it's not supposed to send out unsolicited credit cards.  Fun-time for a class action!

Then there's the sleazy car dealer who gets you to sign a retail installment sales contract to buy a used car, setting forth the terms of the deal and providing required Truth-in-Lending disclosures (such as the annual percentage rate and payment schedule).  "What's this," you say, "looks likes this contract isn't firm?" You hold up a "Limited Right to Cancel-Purchase," a/k/a "spot delivery agreement," that gives the dealer the right to change the terms of your agreement if it isn't able to sell your contract to the lender that offers the best terms.  "Don't worry," says the dealer, "it's just a legal form.  We have everyone sign it."  A couple days later, the dealer tells you your contract had some errors, so you need to come in and sign another one.  The old "bait and switch."  Ha-ha.  Fortunately, the dealer didn't have the last laugh.

"I guess we need to be careful what we sign," says Virginia.

Yes, even though the stack of documents is 2 inches high and even though you might eventually win in court.  The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau set up by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act plans to look at the challenge of voluminous disclosures.  In the meantime, happy reading.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Spring Garden Shots

In case yesterday's written description of our spring things left something to be desired, consider a few pictures that might be worth a hundred words.

First, the four-fifths finished fence of Elk Cliff Farm.  The plastic-covered pile contains the poplar rails we hope will disguise the 4x4 goat wire.
The prime purpose of the fence is to separate the garden beds from these guys.  By the way, we're expecting a few dozen more in a month or so.
Before we go behind the new fence, here's a shot of what we call the "field garden," which is found in our field across the James River Road.  I mowed it today and covered the southwest corner with black groundcloths and a green tarp to kill the Johnsongrass.  I plan to rotate the cover across the garden, where I want to plant sweet corn, sorghum, and grain for the animals.
Now, through the new fence into the middle of the greenhouse, 6 varieties of lettuce in this bed are close to table-ready.
"Where is this bed?" asks Virginia, as if she doesn't know.  She's always thinking of others.  As I said, in the middle of the greenhouse.  My tomato flats with no sprouts yet sit on the lowest shelf, while broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seedlings stand above at attention, anxiously awaiting their march to the outdoor garden.  The lettuces grow underneath these shelves.
Here's one of our winter wheat gardens, next year's flour.
More rows, garlic this time.
"Won't you please pick me this year?"  A few of last year's onions inquire.
Lettuce grows in a cold frame.
Shall we say goodbye to this year's maple syrup season?  For how we prepared our 3 gallons of syrup, please visit Karen's blog, "Maple Syrup Take Two," at  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spring Things

Things spring.  Our garden beds are taking off, head-started by plans laid in late Fall for once, instead of delayed by unrelated time-eaters and wet weather.  Rain, rain, come again today, this year we're ready for you. Whenever you aren't visiting, more seeds are likely to be planted.  This is when I'm especially grateful to be self-employed.  I don't have to go to an office and watch fine weather pass by.

Each year I surround one bed with garlic, planted in November.  The cloves develop underground, sight unseen, until they begin to poke out in January or February.  Now they're 3 inches tall, as they should be.

It's the onions' turn.  Their bulbs wait under a few inches of mounded soil.  Actually, I doubt they're waiting.  Planted three weeks ago, their hairy roots probably are reaching down and around, while green shoots aim sunward. If I were a scientist, I might dig here or there to see what's happening.  Instead, I'm reluctant to sacrifice a single sprout.

Lettuce in the coldframe races to catch up with greenhouse greens almost ready to grace our table, while tiny lettuce and spinach seeds in the garden should be sprouting tiny thin first leaves any day.  Every few weeks I'll be planting a new generation and as the heat of summer approaches I'll gamble on greens thriving in the shade of an ash tree.  If we're lucky, we'll have home-grown salads year-round.

A year ago I planted fava beans too late, thinking they grow like green beans and limas.  They burned black in the summer sun.  This year, their wide fat seeds have already been sown.  Maybe they'll grow, this fava bean virgin wishes.

"Peas, peas, peas, peas, eating goober peas," sings Virginia.  "Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas."

Well, it's too early to plant goober peas, but Wando and Laxton's Progress peas are doing something underground.  I hope to be shelling several bushels in 3 or 4 months.  I know, sugar snap peas and snowpeas are cool.  I plan to stick some of those in the soil later, far enough away and late enough not to cross with the shelling peas.

All of this reminds me of the one class I took from my father, Genetics.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Before I drove my mother to her dentist appointment this morning, I asked where the dentist was located.  I forget exactly what she said, but after she named a few nearby landmarks I caught on.  "Behind the A&P?" I suggested.  "No," said she, "next block over, behind...." "Oh," I said, "I meant behind the newer A&P, now Family Dollar."  Exactly.

That's how conversations go between old-timers.  Newcomers might not know what we were talking about, but we remembered the A&P grocery store's location on Main Street, near the theater, as well as its next location on Cherry Street.  A few blocks away was the store's competitor, IGA, oops, Dave's Market, or rather, now the Community Market.  This kind of thing helps liven up a visit to what used to be home, whether Bluffton, Chapel Hill, Northern Virginia, Baltimore, St. Louis, or Salisbury.  Snapshots, sometimes movies, accompany each return with increments of the past.

Wandering about town with my mother is like entering a Clue game board, or maybe Trivial Pursuit.  Vaguely familiar faces jog recollections, usually less than half right.  Maybe I guess a last name, maiden names for females.  The first name, if one comes to mind, is likely to be off by a birth or two, sometimes even a generation.  A friend of mine says he hates to "go home" because everyone looks so old.  Someone seen everyday, including a mirror's reflection, doesn't look nearly as old as a remembered face 40 years later.

During Monday's lunch, we sat with two women, my former piano teacher and the former organist of my childhood church.  Starting with their children, we branched out to other teachers and students, mostly with a musical bent.  I felt like a Boy Scout at a shooting range, taking wild shots at the beginning then steadily moving into the bull's eye.  I amazed myself by pulling names out of thin air, people who had vanished from my life forty years ago.

I'm not sure Mrs. Szabo believed me when I told her she had taught me one of the most important business lessons of my life.  I was at least 20 minutes late for a piano lesson because my voice teacher had run late.  "I figured you weren't coming," she said from her desk, looking as if she'd moved on to something else and I was interrupting.  Intimated by professors, she and he, I said, "I'm sorry, but my voice lesson ran over."  "You have a responsibility, too," she said sternly, "if he runs over when you have a lesson with me, you need to tell him and reschedule with him if necessary."  Today's Mrs. Szabo laughed, "Me, stern?"  "Definitely," I said, "we thought of you as being very stern, and your comment stuck with me forever -- 'you have a responsibility, too.'"

John Murray stopped by our table on his way out.  "Do you remember me?" he asked.  "Sure do," said I.  "You raced across the cornfield one day to bawl me out for setting off an M-80.  I climbed a tree and you found me."  Remarkably, he proceeded to recite the same story he told me that day, maybe 50 years ago, about the fellow who had seriously wounded himself lighting a firecracker.

"Sounds tiring," says Virginia.

She's right.  Working my memory like this is like sightreading music for 4 hours at a stretch.  Naps are welcome.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Circles in the Snow

Because we've missed out on much of the white stuff this season, I rode Amtrak north in search of some.  Pleased to find that every seat had access to an electrical outlet, I worked on a book update until dinnertime, although I frequently glanced out the windows.  One of the first things you notice riding a train is people don't pay as much attention to the back sides of their houses as they do fronts, which shouldn't be a surprise, I suppose, because it's also clear, as passengers pass through the aisles, the same is true of their bodies.  Another thing I noticed was lots of train whistles.  "A train's coming!"  A bit slow on the uptake, I had to remind myself that it was our whistle.

The prettiest part of the trip was Virginia, with all the little hamlets nestled in mountain hollows, and farms, orchards and vineyards.  By the time we reached West Virginia, after a layover in D.C., the sky was turning dark.  I realized I might as well stay put because the views from the observation car wouldn't be any better.  The sounds might have been, because the elderly gentleman across the aisle, who must have slept 90% of his trip, made no attempt to disguise a variety of noises.  Perhaps he left his Z-Pak at home.  Not for the first time, I wished I'd reserved a berth in the sleeping car.

As soon as I returned from a tasty vegetarian pasta in the dining car, my neighbor in the window seat pointed out that it was snowing.  I said, "That's interesting.  It was raining outside the dining car."  She laughed.  A few minutes later, when the snow changed to rain, I said, "See?  The rain finally made it to our car."  She laughed again.  It's nice to have an appreciative audience, except she apparently figured I wasn't really working and began offering enough information to make me hope she'd reach her destination soon.

By the time we sighted Lake Erie the rain had turned to ice and snow.  Two hours later, when I disembarked in Toledo, the roads looked a mess.  My sister showed up a couple hours later, finding me half asleep on what I'd turned into a long vinyl couch.  "Here I am, picking up my homeless brother," she said.

"You've been into first impressions this week, haven't you?" says Virginia.  "Remember when your friends from North Carolina showed up on Friday.  You hadn't shaved in 3 days and had mud and ashes splattered over your clothes and face."

Nothing a shower and "Queer Eyes for the Straight Guy" can't fix.  Whatever, I had found my snow, I thought, until my sister assured me we'd be out of it in 15 minutes.  Sort of.  A few hours later it began falling heartily in Bluffton as my mother and I watched from her apartment living room.  We drove slowly to dinner with Mary and Fred, and then even slower after I watched a van carve a circle in the snow in front of their house and a couple guys push her back on course, not really what I had in mind on a day of 70 degrees at home in Virginia.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Waiting for the Kids

We're waiting for 8 does to deliver babies.  What's the excitement?  Well, first off, it's great fun to be present when a tiny kid breaks out of its bubble and within minutes begins to walk.  Human parents are lucky their kids aren't as athletic.  It's usually enough of a challenge for mom to feel like walking around the block.

To be selfish for the moment, which I suppose is most of the time, not just a moment, I look forward to 2 weeks or so after the first birth, when our refrigerator resumes storing a bountiful supply of fresh milk.  No more skimping on cereal, or mixing what grocery stores call "milk" with the small amount of real milk Karen brings in from Polly, the doe we save as dessert for Witty, our premier buck.  No more drinking water after a run instead of mixing a healthy dose of chocolate syrup into a glass of raw milk.  No more restraining myself from stepping into TeePee's (a/k/a The Trading Post) for a pint-sized half-gallon of Hershey's ice cream, when we can churn our own.  No more retrieving a wheel of aged cheese from the basement without replacing it with a new block.  And no more frozen mozarella when Karen can whip up a new batch in less than an hour, followed by ricotta to boot.

This time of year bodes well for the table in other ways.  Soon the asparagus will be sprouting.  The lettuces in the greenhouse are getting closer to harvest every day, and we now have more lettuces sprouting in a cold frame.  I planted spinach yesterday in the outdoor garden, and earlier, peas and onions.  As we finished putting wire on the new garden fence today, we couldn't help trampling a few tender garlic shoots.  Tomorrow I'll transplant broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages into larger pots, and soon after, into the garden.

"So you finally finished the fence?" asks Virginia.

Finally?  It was beginning to seem like forever, but we only started the fence a week ago.  Our Spring-like weather gave me the itch to plant, so the fence had to be scooted along.  It's actually not finished yet; 3 gates remain.  If I'm lucky, Karen will build them while I convalesce for a few days in Ohio.  Sort of like when a toilet won't stop running or a faucet dripping -- I can disappear for a few hours and come home to fixed fixtures.

I almost forgot to mention that another "kid" was born today.  The Arrowhead Trio dedicated over an hour to practicing the first movement of the violin, clarinet and piano trio I've been working on.  Tentatively titled "The Barnyard Trio," we got to hear "The Hawk's Visit."  As Winston, our violinist, put it this morning, "Getting to hear live instruments play a new composition you've written is like pouring your own freshly-made maple syrup on a pile of pancakes."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More on Growth

Let's return to the idea of growth, which includes a variety of concepts.  Andy Kessler says an "economy" is a "system that increases the standard of living of its participants."  He offers examples of technologies that have increased our standard of living, such as Dell PCs, Apple products, animated films like "Toy Story" and "Schrek," Oracle databases, Microsoft spreadsheets, Intel processors, Google search engines, Facebook, eBay, Amazon.  Going farther back, he points to the steam turbine, vacuum cleaner, electric dishwasher, X-ray tube, flash-freezing process, refrigerator and air-conditioner, and microwave oven.  All of these developments disrupted the status quo and many helped us live longer and better.

"Us."  You and me.  Whether they have helped mankind live longer and better has yet to be determined.

Maybe you've heard of "singularity," the cover story in Time last week -- "the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."  Raymond Kurzweil and others picture the moment when computers become more intelligent than humans, and humanity will be transformed.  Kurzweil, whose name is on the electronic keyboard that in some ways freed this pianist from reliance on sometimes klunker pianos, predicts this moment to occur by 2045.

If true, computers will be able to do everything we do, but better, including composing music, writing books, painting pictures, inventing things, and carrying on dinner conversations (while they eat who knows what, or not).  What could this do to humans?  Our roles on Earth or wherever we live would drastically change, science fiction become real.  There we are, 35 years from now, with artificial intelligence a fact of life, and death, illness, and old age "cured" by superior intelligence.  What do we do?

Some say this will never happen, that the human body is not a purely bio-chemical system that can be manipulated into perpetual existence -- or that can be simulated and reverse-engineered into a computer. 

"Whatever," says Virginia, "we're still in charge of our fate."

I think she's right, and we're responsible for defining what an "increased standard of living" is.  I'm not ready to give up the conveniences technology has brought us, but I'm also unwilling to declare that they have improved our standard of living, speaking in solidarity terms (that is, in terms of humankind, past, present and future).  Among other things, they may have brought us to the edge of the precipice, what some religionists welcome as the "second coming."  Where will growth take us next?  The persons with the right answers might save humanity, they might become the next billionaires, or they might walk us over the cliff.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fence and Maple Syrup Duet

I smell maple syrup.  As I continued working on post holes, Karen and Susan began evaporating the 100+ gallons of maple sap we've collected so far.  I write "so far" for two reasons.  One, the buckets still hang on our trees.  Two, the result of today's evaporation will determine whether we drink the sap, offer it to someone else, or keep boiling it.  The answer to the boiling question alternated among maybe and no throughout the day.

The big problem is we don't have a proper evaporator.  A lot of the heat from the wood being burned rose around the too-small evaporating pans and warmed the atmosphere instead of the sap.  The women kept a fire going all day in the fireplace that's part of our outdoor kitchen.  We rarely use that grill, unlike the adjacent brick pizza oven.  Susan brought leftover lumber from her place and Karen gathered fallen limbs from ours.  Gradually, they learned to keep the fire the right temperature so the sap wouldn't simmer too slowly or boil too fast. 

I checked in now and then, hoping to smell and taste fresh maple syrup, and be a cheerleader.  Right, I probably doused more enthusiasm than I offered cheer as I grumped my way along the final 17 holes.  Each of the first 7 greeted me with 6 inches of hard, tight gravel mixed with clay.  After banging and twisting the tamping bar, the post hole digger rewarded me with tiny clumps.  Fortunately, it took me only an hour and a half to finish the last 10 after suffering 4 hours on the first 7.  Meanwhile, during water breaks, I noticed the sap gradually turning darker and darker, clear to yellow to tan to brown.

My mood substantially improved after the post hole digger returned to the barn.  Instead of lying in the sun, as I had dreamed of doing, I planted more peas -- Wandos and Laxton's Progress -- and shooed a few chickens that had creeped into my territory, soon to be enclosed by a fence.

I joined the fire-tenders for while.  The sun slid behind our mountain, Susan claimed a pot-full and took it home to finish, while Karen needed a flashlight to check the remaining sap's progress.

"So what's the answer?" asks Virginia.

I'm getting there.  I heated up some leftovers for dinner, then headed off to orchestra practice.   When Karen said, "I'll probably still be here when you get back," I had an inkling of the answer.  When she wasn't there when I got back 3 hours later, I thought I might have been wrong.  I opened the back door and the odor of maple syrup greeted me.  Karen was finishing it off on our indoor stove.  She offered me a taste and, if I heard correctly, she's not ready to let the rest of the sap go to waste.

Monday, February 14, 2011


This blustery afternoon kept us alert for flying objects, such as the roof of our chicken tractor, which refuses to stay where it belongs.  The sun was warm enough to offer suntans, and I couldn't help wondering what the northern wind portended.  Our low was about 50 last night, so the maple sap ran free, offering us about 24 gallons this morning.  The wind slowed the flow to 16 more this afternoon.

I invested my Valentine's Day in post holes.  First time around, most of them did not meet standard, so before sticking in 4x4 posts, I've had to deepen them to 30 inches.  The last few inches tend to be clayey or rocky, and not much fun.  Seventeen more await finishing tomorrow.  Then we'll install the wire fence along the inside.  We'll prettify it soon with wooden boards on the outside.

The main purpose of this fence is to keep out the chickens.  Let's hope the fence, accompanied by regular feather trimming, does the job.

"What were you doing, playing in the dirt today?" says Virginia.  "I saw you take a break."

My resolve to delay spring planting until the fence is finished fell apart, twice.  Three days ago I planted peas (Wandos).  Today I planted onions.  These will assure prompt completion of the fence.  Oh yes, I've got to build some gates, too.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


On Monday we saw the end of hog butchering (see "Bless this Hog," February 7).  Today we saw the beginning, not quite the beginning, although we heard it.  Our role was to help with the scalding, hair removal, and hoisting of the clean "hog on a pole."  I think our host expected all of us to yell "hog on a pole" when we reached that step.  He said it alone, without a cheer.  Mostly we watched, glad our roles were not reversed.
Our instructor claimed we were engaged in the olden way, the way this has been done for many years, with little change, to be distinguished from the way it's now done in factories and slaughterhouses.

As on Monday, I left the place unsettled.  Returning to our driveway was like entering a sanctuary.  I breathed a sigh of relief and felt grateful for plants.  Do they scream when they're picked or pulled?  Just yesterday, a friend promised that if you lie between rows of immature corn in quiet summertime, you could hear it grow, along with crickets crunching.  I doubt what you hear is a hum or a sigh, certainly not enough to suggest a scream when picked, although tearing off an ear makes a noise.

Why was home peaceable?  Over there, in clear view, was the turkey killing tree.  Have the wind, rain and snow, or simply time, purified the atmosphere, like exorcists?

"Nonsense," says Virginia, "the remoteness of events answers the question.  No aura, no spirits."

Will we raise a pig?  I don't know.  It could be the best way to prepare my field garden, which continues to baffle me -- not because I don't know how, but because of the time it requires.  I could invite a tractor for a visit, or a pig.  Maybe we should try the goats first.  Having made fairly quick work of the post holes for my other garden fence, which I hope to finish this next week, I may consider knocking out another 50 holes around the field garden -- and then setting up paddocks for the rest of the field.  Good exercise.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tapping Local Resources

We finally took Larry's advice.  We tapped some of our sugar maples.  Walk by a tree and you'll hear drip-drip-dripping until it gets too cold this evening.  It'll resume in the morning after the sun warms the trees.   We'll keep an eye on the buckets, empty them as they fill, and briefly store the sap in shiny new metal garbage cans.

Thanks go to Susan, who brought wood for the fire on which her pans will boil the sap down to syrup, and to Pat, who contributed a bunch of Fresh Step cat litter buckets.  Karen bought a few old-fashioned metal buckets and spiles with hooks, so a couple trees look classy.  She also cut a copper pipe and a PVC tube into 3-inch pieces, to go with the tacky plastic buckets.

They seem to work equally well, the tacky and the classy, as usual -- which reminds me of Burberry scarves for some reason.  Without a Burberry coat, what's a Burberry scarf?  Sort of like a Mercedes with a dent in the side or a broken turn signal lens -- proof that you can't afford the car.

This also reminds me, for some reason, of yesterday's blog ("Keep $$ Local"), which so far hasn't drawn anyone's wrath.  I'm serious, we could have a movement here.  If you're truly upset with giant banks, the kind whose failure could have a systemic impact on our financial system, and you think Congress isn't doing anything to stem their growth or continued existence, walk your money home.  If enough people did this, no bank would be "too big to fail."

"It may remind you," says Virginia, "but what possible connection is there?"

I guess whenever I think of harvesting maple syrup, I think of growing vegetables, milking goats, making cheese, and doing all those other things most Americans used to do at home.  Doing them these days is like money in the bank.  Back then, folks didn't send their money (they probably didn't have any to send) to faraway places and unknown people.  They'd either stick it under a mattress, earning about as much interest as banks pay us today, or trot into town to visit George Bailey.

[By the way, this is my 400th blog entry.  Should I continue?]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Keep $$ Local:" Too Big to Fail -- What We Can Do About It

We -- you and I -- share responsibility for "too big too fail."  You know, the idea that certain large financial institutions are so important to our financial system that the government must not allow them to fail.  I've heard and read a lot of griping about this, but unless we already limit our financial dealings to the smaller firms, we're adding to the problem.

Financial reform, through the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, is supposed to take care of this -- so taxpayer funds aren't used again to bail out the big guys.  Maybe Dodd-Frank will solve the problem, maybe it won't.  We can leave that argument for others to fuss about.  In the meantime, we're not completely powerless.

Since the bailouts, we've watched big institutions swallow more little ones.  We've heard about their big bonuses.  We've seen them mishandle mortgage servicing and foreclosures, by using robosigners and being unable to produce supporting documents (such as the promissory notes signed by borrowers).

Yesterday, JP Morgan Chase Bank apologized to active military service members for not paying attention to provisions of the Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which requires lenders to lower interest rates to 6% and refrain from foreclosing (after becoming aware that customers are on active duty).  This isn't rocket science.  Banks have no excuse for not understanding the SCRA and other laws.  They've been bombarded with articles, book updates, and agency issuances on these topics.

We can complain all we want about bungling by the big guys, to little avail, or we can do something about "too big to fail."  What institutions handle your financial affairs?  Big ones or smaller, local ones?

If your answer is "big ones," then move your money.  Bring it home to firms you know and trust.  And keep an eye on developments.  If a big firm buys the small one you've been using, move your money again.

"Hey, a grass roots revolution!" says Virginia.  "We have the power.  We can do something."

We certainly can try.  We may be surprised by the products and services available through small institutions.  They've changed over the years, and now offer most if not all of what the big ones offer, at least for people like you and me.  Check out your local banks and credit unions.

"What about mortgage payments?" says Virginia.

Well, you might not be able to do much about them.  If you borrowed from a local firm, it may have sold your mortgage loan to a big firm.  Even if you refinance, that loan might be sold, too, although you could shop around for a firm that says it doesn't plan to sell its loans.  If enough people demanded this, the market would have to change to accommodate it.

We've seen "buy fresh, buy local" take off.  How about "invest local, keep your $$ local?"

-- Get rid of big name credit cards.  Keep $$ Local!
-- Move your checking and savings accounts.  Keep $$ Local!
-- If you must finance a car, home improvement, whatever, do it nearby.  Keep $$ Local!
-- Refinance with a community bank, savings association, or credit union.  Keep $$ Local!
-- Bring your stock and bond investments closer to home.  Keep $$ Local!

Of course, you can write your legislators, too.  But don't forget.  Put your money where your mouth is.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Writer Who Has Caught Up with Deadlines

The greenhouse thermometer read 30 degrees this morning, versus an outdoor temperature of 23.  I'd like to think the manure pile in the greenhouse is making a difference, but I suppose the gauges could be faulty.  The warmer days are helping my 10 varieties of lettuce grow faster than they were.

I'm getting into a habit of every third day stopping by the woodshed to practice using the heavy-duty splitting maul I ordered from Lehman's a few years ago (, well worth the $50 investment. My lessons began with the black walnut tree cut down by request of the family of the fellow who ran into it on May 10, 2010.  I probably could have dropped the maul on a walnut chunk and watched it split, but I needed to perfect my aim and my swing because a pile of locust waits for me.  A month ago, I gave the locust a try and failed miserably.  Now I've graduated and am able to add some of that yellow wood, nicely split, to our backstairs bin.

After emptying my cup of apple cider vinegar tea and doing a tiny bit of work "in my office," it's usually time for a morning run.  Last night I realized our bank account was dwindling, so this morning the bank was my destination.  "You still running?" the teller asked, not impressed by the stocking pulled over my face and the pistol in my hand.  "Always, unless I'm injured" was my answer.  The branch is a little more than 3 1/2 miles from our house, so I added a detour to make an 8-mile loop.  As I left Glasgow, Randy waved from his garage, which is stuffed full of things he's trying to sell.  "Since we built this house, we've parked a car in the garage twice," he told me,  "been admiring your greenhouse, started plants myself last year, we'd like to drop by for a tour some day."  Please do, I said.  A few years ago we traded sweet corn for green peppers.

I read the local weekly over a late breakfast, then resumed what I started yesterday -- garden fence building.  Because I dug 17 holes yesterday, I had to match that today, leaving only 16 to finish, tomorrow I hope.

"To keep out the deer?" asks Virginia.

No, the chickens.  My little yellow mesh fences, mentioned in earlier blog entries, haven't worked well except for the first few days after we trim wings.  I figure a 6-foot fence will do a better job and reduce feather-clipping to a monthly task.  The fence will only extend along two sides of the garden area.  Let's hope the chickens don't wander all the way around.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Day After

Let's reprise January 27, 2010, when I blogged about the old Natural Bridge High School track.  I often use the track for speedwork.  This morning I wanted a short relaxing run after spending all of yesterday standing on a concrete floor.

Of course, before we enter, we must buy tickets. 
All right, now read the rules.  You've gotta look up, way up. 
Believe it or not, that's a new sign.  Its use of the term "joggers" reminds me of runners 20 years ago who looked down on "joggers" as fly-by-night and casual.

Before we start our laps, let's check out the schedule.
All right, first time around, admire the scoreboard.
"Those were the days, my friend," sings Virginia.

They were days, maybe not "the days."

Now this is new.  I don't know what it is, maybe for lacrosse.

On the way home, firewood envy struck.

By the way, we had salad for dinner last night, and I'm still wondering when/if I'll want to eat any AVH (Arnold's Valley Hog). Karen worked on the sausage today while I dug post holes for a garden fence.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bless This Hog

[Caution:  Viewer Advisory -- Discretion Suggested]

We spent most of today with this fellow, Arnold's Valley Pig, who enjoyed his life just down the road.  I'm pretty sure my decision to post this picture was more difficult than choices made by war photographers.  Unfortunately, we're used to them, but not this, although 10 billion -- that's right, 10 billion -- animals are killed to adorn our tables each year in the U.S.
He wasn't squinting when we saw him alive, rooting through the back of our friend's pickup.   He also wasn't sweet and affectionate like a goat.  We discovered tusks growing under his snout, not that that's relevant to anything.

Some people, including Tommy and Sophie, claimed his brains will be tasty with scrambled eggs.  While I'm not up for that, I'm glad very little of what's left of this former life is going to waste.  I didn't know jowls offered bacon, but they do.

Frankly, until this morning I didn't know where most pork cuts come from, and I pictured butchering as a very bloody process (even though I've helped process turkeys and chickens).  I learned it is not.  My first job was to butterfly-cut a rack of pork chops.

Why is this man smiling?  Three reasons.  One, he's known for smiling.  Two, that's what we often do in front of a camera.  Three, he's remembering an early morning in Vernazza, Italy, when he sat on the balcony of his rented flat to watch the town wake up.  A man in a white apron scurried down steps leading to the town's narrow street of shops, a quarter like this one hoisted over his shoulder.

My biggest job for the day was separating the skin and bones from this leg and another one, while Rob, at the next table, did the same thing.  The rest of our crew cubed what we cut off and tossed them into baskets lined with black plastic.  All of this became sausage.
How much fat goes into sausage astonished me, and coated our hands again and again with grease as we mixed and mixed and mixed.  That process took quite a while because our teacher had to pause and cook a patty now and then to see if the seasonings were just right.
"Did you put it in plastic rolls?" asks Virginia.

No, our boss makes it into thin, flat sheets and freezes them, one-by-one, in plastic Glad bags.  Before that happens, the sausage needs to sit overnight and absorb the flavors of sage and other seasonings.  Karen will return tomorrow to help wrap it up.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wildcat Mountain Hike

We celebrated this spring-like afternoon with a couple friends hiking part-way up Wildcat Mountain.  My legs were a bit tired after running to Arrowhead Lodge and back this morning.

We took the camera along.  I'd include some pictures if it hadn't stayed in my water bottle belt the entire time. 

We saw no bears, so we talked about bears.  I imagine plenty of them saw us.  We didn't hear them talking.

Part of the forest road had a freshly applied coat of gravel, which worked up my tree hugger instincts -- to no avail.  We saw no evidence of recent logging activity.

One of the hikers suggested I read "God is Not One -- The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- and Why Their Differences Matter" (Stephen Prothero).  He says the book debunks the idea that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."  This may be a "lovely sentiment," "but it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue."

"I don't know much about Islam," says Virginia.  "Maybe I should read the book."

Our friend also mentioned a native American woman who said native Americans tend to look at strangers as they look at family and friends, whereas other Americans look at strangers with fear and distrust.  Maybe, maybe not.  I don't like stereotypes because they don't treat individuals as special; they put me into categories, some appropriate, some not.  Target marketing pieces that arrive at our door get tossed into the paper shredder for future compost.

Good hike.  Good ideas.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Preliminary Thoughts on Growth

Go east, south, west, if you want growth -- to China, Turkey, India or Brazil.  We seem to be maxed out here at home in the U.S.

"But the stock market," says Virginia, "it's up, what, 20% in the past year?  Isn't that a good sign?"

It feels good, maybe, so long as we forget the high unemployment rate, all the people who've given up looking for work, the low rise in our gross domestic product (GDP) compared to what we used to see, the fact that many of the companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average or other market averages earned half their revenues overseas, and our huge national deficit.  A lot of psychology runs the "market."

"Retail sales were up last month, right?" Virginia adds.

I guess so.  Where did the money come from to buy those things?  I read somewhere that our savings rate clicked downward, folks drew on money market and investment accounts, while incomes lifted a tad.  Maybe we're "recovering" from the concern about over-extension we had a year ago and we're ready to resume our bad habits.

Some "experts" say economic data has become more volatile and we should expect more frequent recessions in the next decade or two, say every three years or so.  I guess recessions are likely because our growth rate is so low.  It wouldn't take much to tip it below zero now and then...a recession.  We can't count on growth to bring in more taxes to pay for higher government "investment," so we'll: (1) go deeper into debt; (2) raise tax rates; and/or (3) cut government programs  

Something's got to give.  A serious attitude adjustment is in order.  Ordinary Americans will need to revise our expectations.  So much for the sizable salary raises we used to expect.  Goodbye tax breaks.  We may need to save up for things we really want, which will give us time to decide whether we really want them.

"Keeping up with the Joneses" may take on a different flavor.
     -- "Hey, how about a coupon exchange, I brought my scrapbook along?"
     -- "I'm glad we raised an extra hog; we'll trade sausage for sweet corn."
     -- "I've done that before; here, help me split this pile of wood, then we'll build your fence."
     -- "My mower broke; I'll give your child piano lessons if you'll mow my lawn."
     -- "Wow, your garden looks great; what did you do to keep the cabbage worms away?"
     -- "You know, I thought about applying for that job, but it made more sense to work at home; I don't need a car and gasoline to gather sap from our maple trees and expand the planting -- besides, the exercise is good for me...and I won't need a new wardrobe."

"Definitely sounds retro," says Virginia, "while the Egyptians say 'stick-it-to-the-man,' we could support each other.  Think 'victory gardens' times ten."

Or a thousand, this time permanently -- unless a post-information technology revolution comes along, created by a new generation of innovators.  Go kids, go!

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.  The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."  George Bernard Shaw

Friday, February 4, 2011

We're Spoiled (and Stuck)

As folks scramble to cope with homes and schools that aren't warm, the suggestion that we pile on clothes and blankets instead of buying generators and installing other back-up heating devices has a certain appeal. I realize it's not an answer for everyone, especially those with less than perfect health, and it won't keep pipes from freezing.  I'm afraid I was kind of drawn to the governor of Pennsylvania's criticism of the cancelling of a professional football game due to weather ("you wimps") -- that he didn't think would have happened in certain other parts of the world.

"We're spoiled," says Virginia.  "We have to be able to run around naked indoors in the winter and fully clothed in the summertime."

I'm tempted to read "Air-Conditioning America" by Gail Cooper or "Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning" by Marsha Ackerman, which I understand examine how HVAC technology transformed American expectations and the definition of comfort.  For most of time, humans have managed quite well without heated or cooled homes.  Now we've designed ourselves into them.  We're stuck.

One of these days, not today, I want to return to our obsession with growth.  For example, we refuse to invest in companies that don't present us with the expectation of above-average growth.  We view a country as a failure if its GDP doesn't grow as fast as those of other countries.  Inherent in this growth obsession is a tendency to get stuck -- in that we make it virtually impossible to return to a previous, perhaps more reasonable state, because it's "primitive" or too much like the life of "pioneers" -- and at the same time we also might be making the return inevitable because our lifestyle becomes unsustainable on Earth (i.e., a Catch-22).  I think a very serious paradigm shift is inevitable.

"I think you lied when you said 'one of these days, not today,'" says Virginia.  "It's still today."

All right.  Goodbye, folks.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Doing What You Want

Don't procrastinate!  As I check off writing deadlines one by one, doing the work that brings in the bacon, I think of the poems, stories, music and other stuff that doesn't get written or done.  How many of us postpone doing what we say we want to do while slogging away at something else?

"Who are you to talk?" says Virginia.  "You don't need to hustle off to an 8-to-6 job, risk getting fired if you don't, or struggle making ends meet payday to payday."

She doesn't really know, but I'd have to admit, like many if not most people my age in this country, my situation isn't the same as the majority of twenty- or thirty-somethings.  It's tough for the strugglers to find time to do what they really want, although I think they can.

The first step might be to convince yourself that you really want to do what you want to do.  Frankly, if you're not finding time to do it, you probably don't want to do it enough.  Think of what you find time to do.  Sketch out your day.  Sleep as late as possible? Clean house?  Mow the lawn?  Sit and talk to strangers while your laundry spins?  Email, "talk" on Facebook, watch television, play golf?  All those things are perfectly fine activities, but if they're not that thing you really want to do, then what's up?

Next, focus on what you're missing.  A writer, artist or composer knows he or she forfeits product each day that passes without practicing the medium.  Ideas disappear or fail to appear in the first place, and then they're gone for good.  If a writer writes, he or she has something to show for it.  If the writer doesn't write, there's zip.  Some day, looking back, he or she may say, gosh, if only I'd....  The same is true whatever you want to do -- knitting, learning automobile mechanics, singing, walking, exercising, starting a business, growing a garden.

That's enough.  I'm going to work on that trio.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pinching Off the Extra Seedlings

I bit the bullet this morning and pinched off the broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seedlings growing in our bedroom window so only one seedling remains in each cell of the planting tray.  I usually wait longer.  Why?  I guess to see which of the 3 or 4 seedlings in each cell is the most robust, but I suppose the longer I wait the more each one stunts the other's growth.
Growing instructions typically call for 3 or 4 seeds to be planted in each cell, supposedly in case a low germination rate occurs.  I usually have a high success rate, so I've been tempted to plant one seed per cell.  Maybe next year I'll go to 2 seeds per cell.  

Perhaps I'm overly sensitive.  I don't like wasting the extra seedlings.  If I pull them out instead of pinching them off, I fret about the surviving fittest, that I might have unduly disturbed its soil.  So I carefully pat the soil and water it at the base.  I don't spray because the blast might knock over the skinny tender stem.

"You could put them in a salad," says Virginia.

You know?  She's right.
(If you click on the picture, you might notice the seedlings leaning toward the window.  Tomorrow, if I remember, I'll turn the tray around so they'll get to lean the other way.  And so on, every few days.)