Friday, February 27, 2015

I'm a sap for hobbies

I once read that “collecting” is the most common hobby among Americans. I can buy that, because I collect. Hobbies that is.

I love hobbies. They give me a needed break from the everyday world, allow me to focus both my mind and pocketbook on the trivial and provide for me a unique sense of identity.

But as much as I love hobbies, I have a devil of a time keeping them. My passion for a hobby can be so blinding that it no longer becomes a break from the everyday world, it become my everyday world.

I have, in turns,

· Tended a massive garden

· Captained (and mostly repaired) a wooden boat

· Carved duck decoys

· Tied flies

· Hunted deer, ducks and rabbits

· Trained a dog who hunted as poorly as I did

· Scoured the countryside for letterboxes

· Made fine things (mostly sawdust) in a woodshop

· Photographed wildlife and wildly cute grandkids

· And a couple others I’ve already forgotten

Each of these was MY hobby. While a recreational pursuit is in my focus, I have little doubt that it is the money-sucking avocation to rival my money-generating vocation. I’m at heart a tightwad, but I’ve never had hesitation laying out the bucks for a rototiller, a table saw, a huge camera lens or a 24-foot wooden boat that was probably better suited for fish habitat.

And each was a bargain. I’m quite certain that every dime you spend on a hobby extends your life a day or two. If you work in a stressful job, as I always have, the chance to perform a mindless-but-enjoyable task to please no boss but yourself is respite with a capital “R.”

Which brings me to my latest passion – with a capital “M.” I make sweet and sticky maple syrup.

A few years ago, when Gillian lived in Vermont, she sent to me a small set of “spiles.” A spile is the spigot that you hammer into a maple tree with the expectation that the precursor to pancake heaven will trickle into your bucket. When I visited her that summer, I couldn’t help but buy a whole selection of big, little, plastic and metal spiles from the real Vermonter (plaid shirt, abbreviated vocabulary) at the country hardware store.

Making syrup is not unlike watching comets. Before the big moment, you crave (and buy) every bit of equipment made . You check your calendar again and again. You wait. And wait.

Then you spend the briefest of times scrambling like hell and loving every minute.

For most of the year, maple trees are pretty much like oaks and elms. They stand tall, provide good shade and cover your yard with leaves each fall.

But for a few weeks in February and March, they go a bit crazy. When the nights are below freezing but the days are warmer, they trees start shuttling sap from root to stem and back so frenetically that they overload. The sap tries its best to pop out from under the back, much to the joy of ants, bird and guys with earflaps on their hats.

We usually think of Vermont or Canada as the only sources of maple syrup, but at one time maples were tapped all over the East and the Midwest. There was good Yankee logic in it. Before the Civil War, white sugar was expensive stuff that came from Cuba and other exotic climes. The Native Americans, however, showed us how to get that sap out of maple trees and boil it down to syrup and eventually a honey-brown sugar. We were so thankful that we stole all their land and gave them smallpox.

The pioneers now buy C&H and most regular folk douse their pancakes with thick corn syrup infused with a hint of artificial maple flavor. But there are saps like me all over the “sugarbush” who brave the cold and spend enough money to by an International House of Pancakes lifetime pass to make a few ounces of pure joy.

I started with three trees and now tap seven – with my eye on another down the hill. I tramp down our hill with a five-gallon bucket, empty the various pails and jugs slung from my tries, then hump the sloshing load back up the hill.

When I get five to 10 gallons of sap, I get to use the toy that occupied me through the warmer months. I built and continually tinker with a wood-fired evaporator. It’s really a pile of concrete blocks topped with a turkey roaster, but it’s what makes mapling a perfect guy hobby. I get to sit around all Saturday poking sticks in the fire while watching 5 gallons of sap boil down to 8-12 ounces of syrup.

And I get to wear a red wool hat with earflaps! Maybe this is it – the hobby to end all hobbies.

Not a chance.


Friday, February 20, 2015

A beach, a song and such a 60s day

Salt air, bright sun, bronzed bodies – how can anyone not like a trip to the beach?

I’ve had the good fortune to bake my bones on beaches from Southern California to the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. I’ve even shivered on the gravel that passes for a beach on the Oregon coast.

But one beach, too far from home, continues to haunt me.

In 1966, my father was offered the chance to attend an Army engineer school for National Guard sergeants. It would mean, however, spending three months in Arlington, VA, -- the opposite side of the country from our Redding, CA, home. So he and mom packed the family into our old Ford Galaxy, hooked up a 16-foot funky old trailer and headed east.

While I theoretically liked the idea of adventure and it was just an exchange of a “C” for a “V”, I was still a typical freshman boy. Freshman boys don’t do anything without complaining. I think it is the acne.

With much show of disdain I left my friends and I left my familiar haunts. Virginia, as it turned out, wasn’t all that bad. I even made a few new friends in the trailer park who insisted – in that slow accent – that a “Coke” was a “pop.” Funny, but no southern comfort to me.

The redeeming quality to the trip was the proximity to Washington, D.C. and the surrounding landmarks that dappled my textbooks. Dad was a mailman, a soldier, an engineer – and a history buff. We spent every day he was off duty and my brother and I were out of school looking for our American roots. If it was too hot or too rainy, we went to the Smithsonian. I spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian.

It was an education that I now cherish, but eventually a boy has to put his foot down. The sun was out, it was Saturday and there was supposed to be a beach within driving distance. Dad gave in.

I was as excited as a 15-year-old boy could get. It would be wall-to-wall beautiful girls in bikinis who would almost faint with admiration when they watched me body surf onto the glistening white sand.

History I paid attention to. Geography, not so much. “Beach” has an entirely different meaning when it applies to Chesapeake Bay.

No waves, except when my little brother splashed. No surf. More cigarette butts than sand (this was pre-Earth Day). And 10-times the well-covered moms than the bikinied girls. Who were all protected by tough-looking guys making those cigarette butts. And whose 1966 bikinis would qualify as yoga suits today.

Still, it was better than sitting in that little trailer in Arlington. Until the Mamas and the Papas wafted from someone’s towel-side radio.

“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray...”

No. Don’t do this to me. Not that song.

“I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A….”

OK, so Redding is farther from L.A. than Washington is from Quebec. It’s the safe and emotionally warm part that counts.

“California dreaming, on such a winter’s day…”

It wasn’t winter, but I bundled up in a towel (until I started to bake) and hid my eyes from my all-knowing mom. California dreaming… My buddy Rex and I out on our bikes. People who said a Coke is a Coke. Girls I knew who I could at least imagine in bikinis.

I went home with a mild sunburn and a song forever lodged in my head. I truly love the beach, but it only takes a little sand to click “replay” in my head. Every beach is a memory.

But not to worry, they are good memories. Now when I hear that haunting harmony, I remember the hug from Mom. And I remember thinking that Redding wasn’t so bad, after all. And I remember regaling my friends with tales of the almost-South.

And I remember a question that made me a better writer:

How can so few words mean so much?

California dreaming.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Hearts of my heart

I am not an artist.

I remind myself of this about this time of year when my heart overrides my talent. I love my wife, Cecile, dearly. But on Valentine’s Day I try to say that in something besides words.

Despite the lexicon of romance authors, you can’t “make love.” You live love, you give love and you bask in love. And you make the objects and activities that demonstrate that you do.

I am not an artist. But I am a maker.

When Cecile and I were young marrieds on a tight budget, I felt bad that I couldn’t give her the diamonds and exotic trips I saw in the TV ads. But one January day I noticed a large tree limb that had fallen near our duplex.

On a whim, I took a handsaw to the limb and cut off a hunk. I looked at it for several days trying to decide if I could make it into something close to a Valentine.

Remember, I am not an artist. In elementary school, my specialty was gooey clay. After pounding, twisting and poking it as long as the teacher would let me, it still looked like a lumpy blob. But when I took it home to Mom, she would give me a big hug for making her another ashtray. Ashtrays were the dominant d├ęcor of living rooms back in the unhealthy days. And any lump with a dimple qualified.

The piece of tree limb had no more chance of becoming art than did my lump of clay. But I was as determined as ever to try, first with a whittling knife (my God, oak is hard!) and eventually with a saw and a drill-mounted sander. The result was almost the shape of a heart, so I used my knife to write “To my Love” on it. Maybe “scrawl” is more accurate. My knife-writing is worse than my third-grade pencilmanship.

But Cecile loved it as much as I loved giving it to her. She kept it on her desk for years.

Periodically through the years, that same urge to give Cecile something from my hands welled up. I never had a plan when it happened, but I was inspired by stumbling upon a tool or something to shape. The basic design decision was already made for me – a heart. I am, after all, not an artist.

My craziest idea came from a softball-sized chunk of pink granite that I found in Oklahoma. How hard could it be to sculpt it? All those Greeks did it without power tools.

I now have a deep and abiding respect for sculptors. After dulling every chisel I could find, I attacked it with a carbide blade on my Skill saw. The stone heart started to take shape about the same time the electrical heart of my saw chewed itself to pieces on granite dust.

But with a variety of grinders, it also became recognizable. And again Cecile gave it a place of honor.

Through the years, I’ve made several wooden hearts, mounted a heart-shape stone and polished more pieces of tree limb into gifts.

I’m not an artist, but making a heart lifts my own heart. As I writer, I live with the tyranny of words. All day and much of the night, my ears, mind and fingertips are flooded with words.

But in the shop, it’s just me and a heart that is trying to get out of a piece of wood or other material. I don’t play the radio. I usually wear earplugs. And I don’t talk, even to myself.

Working on some new way to make that heart lets me think about the woman who owns my own heart. I grind, carve and mold in silent contemplation of the blessing I have.

This year I suddenly had the urge to try metal work. I put a small chocolate candy into a tin can half full of wet plaster of Paris. After I finally dug the chocolate out, I melted lead fishing weights in another can and poured the silvery liquid into the mold. Ta-da, a heart! Not much more elegant than that original tree limb, but a heart for Cecile never the less.

I only burned my hand three or four times. Then splashed myself with stain as I prepared a wooden mount for my fishing-weight-cum-Valentine. And when it was done, I noticed the mount was as pocked and unsophisticated as the lead heart.

Oh well. I am not an artist.

But I make. And I love. Happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 06, 2015

I can't get no satisfaction. But I can hum it.

When you hit about 60, you get a free pass to be annoying. Annoying kids are just pests, but annoying old men are just, well, old men.

By now I’ve perfected all 50 Shades of Gray Irritations, but there is one I have employed for as long as I remember. 
I hum.

I’ve suffered countless elbow jabs and shooshing fingers over the years, but it has only become worse. Now I also sing.

Neither would be bad if I did them well or even knew the words to the songs I share. But quality is not the object of my vocalization. I’m just sharing what my mental radio is playing.

A few years ago, one of my students launched a blog called “The Song in My Head.” Several times a week, she would become conscious of a song playing in her head and then research the lyrics, popularity and background. It was one of the most interesting student blogs I’ve read.

I never had the time nor inclination to delve into the details of the songs in my head. For one, they change too quickly. For another, I can’t remember them five minutes after I stop humming.

The thought of singing in a choir or, God forbid, performing on a stage terrifies me. But give me a shower stall, an empty hallway or a workshop that requires ear-protectors and I am the star of Clyde’s Pretty Good Record Co.

And any other time, I’m probably humming.

Most of the songs are from the musically amazing period of my youth – the 1960s. I think that all of the nuclear tests back then created not monsters, but the best songwriters in history. (My opinion is never humble). The Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, all of MoTown. Every few years something that I hummed in high school comes back as a hit song. It is Baby Boomers' reparation for having to put up with Richard Nixon.

Some songs come up in my repertoire frequently. “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” sounds great while walking through the University basement after hours. “My Girl” pops up when I think of my wife (it’s also her ringtone). “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” can stick with me for weeks. And sounds unintelligible when hummed.

But I drift to classical, try a little country and sink into the blues. “The Voice” TV show may be my ultimate undoing. After every episode, I find myself mumbling through a catchy new tune.

The hell of it is, I know this will get worse. My ears are already cratering from all the loud music I listened to as a teen (Baby Boomer’s penance for electing George Bush). That means I’m well on my way to one of those really annoying old men: Deaf as a post but sitting in the corner humming at increasingly high volume.

Ah, but at least I’ve got great songs to hum.  
-- Clyde