Hey, Murphy, pass the hydraulic fluid

Q: What does one do the Sunday between football play-offs and the Super Bowl?

A: The things that didn’t get done while lolling on the sofa quaffing beers every Sunday since August.

One could watch TV–there’s a Barry Manilow themed ice-skating show on.  That’ll get a man outside doing manly things quicker than you can say, well, Barry Manilow.  It’s bad enough getting sucked into Downton Abbey, but ice-skating?  One has to draw the line somewhere.  And this is why Maywood Man is outside with his vintage Maywood equipment doing Maywood tasks.

Best alternate source of heat is the woodstove.

Best alternate source of heat is the woodstove.

It’s good timing for a by-week from football.  Last week, just as the arctic chill sent Maryland temperatures into the teens, the furnace conked out.  The new furnace is being installed tomorrow, as the temperatures begin to climb this week toward the 50’s.  It hasn’t been too painful, though.  Like NASA, we have engineered redundancy around here.  We have two furnaces.  Bedroom doors stayed open while the downstairs furnace worked to heat the whole house.  The wood stove supplemented the downstairs furnace.  At night, we shut bedroom doors and kept quite comfortably warm with space heaters.

Murphy's Law #658--If you buy an extra heater for the classroom so that your assistant principal doesn't have to give up hers, your room will become too hot to need a heater.

Murphy’s Law #658–If you buy an extra heater for the classroom so that your assistant principal doesn’t have to give up hers, your classroom will be too hot to need a heater.

But we are now out of firewood.  Well, not out of wood.  We’re just out of pre-cut pieces ready to toss in the wood-stove. This afternoon, I type to the soothing buzz of the chain-saw in the “lumber yard.”  Tonight, I look forward to watching Downton Abbey in real time by a roaring fire.  Maywood Man will probably fall asleep from this afternoon’s exertions.  Maybe–just to get a rise out of him– I’ll jump up periodically and scream, “Come on, Flacco!” like our toddler grandson John.

It's a fuzzy picture because I took it through a screen.   You think I'm going out in the  cold to take a picture of a tractor?

It’s a fuzzy picture because I took it through a screen. You think I’m going out in the cold to take a picture of a tractor?

Big John would have cut firewood yesterday, but he was wrapped up with tractor repairs.  Well, of course.  Or as the French say, Mais oui.  Murphy’s Law #342:  The furnace will conk out when the temperature nose dives into the teens.  Murphy’s Law #572: The tractor will break down if it snows.

It snowed.

Not a lot.  I got a two-hour school delay for snow on Thursday.  Friday I got a two-hour early dismissal.  Mere dustings…just enough to cause massive traffic delays around the Baltimore-D.C area.  Just enough to tell the tractor to break down.

What this time?  Points and capacitor.  Don’t ask me what that is; I thought it was related to spark plugs.  According to John, they work together to provide spark to the spark plugs.  (I knew the spark plugs were connected somehow.  I’m learning bee-lingo; I have not mastered tractor mechanics.)  I suggested that he call before heading up to Shrewsbury–to avoid Murphy’s Law #690:  If you drive to Shrewsbury, they won’t have the part you need.  Ah, sure enough, he ended up driving to Hanover to get the part he needed.  While in Hanover, he looked at hydraulic fluid and thought, “Nah, I’ve got enough.”

Murphy’s Law # 691: If you think you have enough hydraulic fluid at home, you will discover that you do not.

This is where I find myself not believing that I’m actually saying what I’m saying:

“Dear, maybe we should just always keep a supply of hydraulic fluid on hand.”

Today, before bonding with his chain saw, Maywood Man took a ride to Shewsbury for hydraulic fluid.  The tractor is now ready to go.   Tomorrow the furnace will be purring and the firewood will be stacked high on the porch.

Pottery Barn wickless candles--great for ambience but useless as a heat source.

Pottery Barn wickless candles–great for ambience but useless as a heat source.

Dare I predict balmy weather in Baltimore for the Super Bowl?  I’m not going to get cocky.   A quick check at weather tells me that the furnace could be delayed by ice tomorrow.

Murphy’s Law #343: Ice storms will hit the day you schedule a furnace installation.

Now I have a real dilemma.  Do I wish for a day off school due to weather?  Or do I wish for clear weather and a furnace?

What I wish for is to watch the Raven’s win the Super Bowl in a nice warm house.  And Murphy is not invited.202380576976815018_hG09CAUH_b[1]

BSI: Bee Scene Investigator

(Note and disclaimer:  The following post might actually contain factual information relevant to beekeepers.)

The bee scene to be investigated

The bee scene to be investigated

All the bees are dead and I want to know why.  I want to autopsy the bees.  Technically, since they are not human  beings, I want to dissect the bees.  But Mr. Beekeeper husband is feeling really sad about these bees.  He feels like he failed to take care of his girls.  We, therefore, are treating his loss with all due respect.  Autopsies are in order.

I  personally can’t wait to dissect…I mean, autopsy…the bees.  It takes me back to the dissection unit of my 10th grade biology class.  I had really squeamish lab partners, so I ended up pretty good at dissecting by the end of the unit.   By the time we got to the pithed frog I felt like I was doing surgery.  It was cool, even though the frog died.

John doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm.  While I set up my equipment, he gets out the build-your-own-volcano kit that Harper got for Christmas.  And he and Harper later go feed a pinkie mouse to the snake.  That apparently is more interestsing than cutting open honeybees.   Nevertheless, John brings a frame containing dead bees up from the basement.

Kathy Harp, BSI

Kathy Harp, BSI

Although the bright flourescent light in the basement is better for microscope work than the warm cozy sleep-inducing glow in the log-framed kitchen, it’s cold in the basement.  So, once again, the kitchen becomes the staging area.  I gather my supplies:

microscope (We need 20x-50x.   The one we have says 1x-2x but John swears it’s 100-200 because he researched the model number when he bought it–at work–from General Electric.)

cork (Plenty of those at our house!  We have a whole jar of wine bottle corks saved for what?  My sister-in-law uses hers to anchor pillar candles in sconces.  I am using mine to anchor honeybees with pins.)

pins (Jos A Bank still pins men’s dress shirts, so I have a bunch of pins.  It’s not like I ever use them for sewing.)

razor blade (No, I do not take apart a safety razor.  John actually has blades in his shop.)

The Beekeeper's Bible (Richard Jones)

The Beekeeper’s Bible (Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeny-Lynch)

Now it is time to actually dissect the bee.  Umm…what am I supposed to do exactly?  It was Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeney-Lynch’s The Beekeeper’s Bible (Stewart, Tabori & Chang,  2011) that put this idea in my head in the first place.  It tells me to pin the bee onto the cork at an angle for better viewing and then cut off the bee’s head and thoracic collar.  This requires a little more research because The Beekeeper’s Bible does not provide me with critical information, like how the heck one finds the thoracic collar of a bee.

Dave Cushman’s instructions provide some clarity.                                        (http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/acarine_diagnosis.html)

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees.  The flashlight is particularly effective.

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees. The flashlight is particularly effective.

Oh, the cork is cut at an angle.  The bee is pinned to the cork.  The cut is made between the first and second sets of legs.  The thoracic collar, which is to be pealed off with tweezers, is nicely highlighted in red.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect--the guillotine.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect–the guillotine.

Minor problem.  The thoracic collars of my bees are not highlighted in red.  And, second minor problem, the tweezers are not official dissecting forceps and are a little clumsy to work with.  So, even if I think I know where the thoracic collar is, trying to remove it to get a better look at trachea pretty much rips the bee apart.  Not that I have any lack of bees to experiment with.  I decide, for the sake of my own sanity, to forego the removal of the thoracic collar and just see what I can see.

And just what am I supposed to see?  I  have no idea.  Dave Cushman has some great pictures, but they are black and white illustrations.   I end up at youtube.  Jamie Ellis’ video is very helpful. http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/afbee/resources/Trachaelmites.shtml

I really have no idea what I'm showing you here.

I really have no idea what I’m showing you here.

Here I actually see video images of what healthy bee insides look like.  Our bees don’t look anything Dr. Ellis’ bees.  I’m thinking maybe our bees have been dead just a little too long.  Either the autopsies are strongly conclusive of mite destruction or they are completely inconclusive of anything.  I lean toward the latter.

Do stale bee bodies mean the end of our investigation?  Not at all.  The presentation of bees in the hive tells us something.  The bees are not as clumped together as we would have expected.  That could be symptomatic of erratic behavior induced  by tracheal mites.  More importantly, we think back to the behaviors of the hives since last spring.

Hive D never did get off to a good start.  It never thrived and was the first hive to die in the fall.  John had thought that it was a problem with weak queens and so he requeened some of the hives.  He didn’t realize that the weakness of the hive in the spring could also have been due to tracheal mites.   Requeening was not a bad idea.  However, according to Dr. Ellis’ report, it would have been more successful with queens who were resistant to tracheal mites.  This supports our current thinking of buying Minnesota Hygienics in the spring.

Do these wings look weird to you?

Do these wings look weird to you?

There is one really obvious symptom of tracheal mites that we have observed but were clueless as to its significance:  bees walking around the beeyard.  More specifically, bees with odd wings walking around the beeyard.  Bees don’t walk places.  They fly.  Walking bees, particularly if they walk up a blade of grass and are unable to take off in flight, are not normal.  We found this phenomenon fascinating.  In hindsight, those are the bees I should have been dissecting.  Those were the bees afflicted with tracheal mites.  Instead, we watched doomed bees wander around on the ground while we sipped chardonnay and beer, oblivious to the knowledge that the doomed bees’ sisters were infected as well.

Oh, how callous we were!  Oh, how expensive a lesson we learned.   We’re like detectives who went out for a drink with the prime suspect and let him get away. And now there are bee bodies everywhere.  Really.  John dropped a few coming and going to the basement.  He thinks he picked them all up, but he didn’t.  The evidence speaks for itself.



Disaster Strikes the Hives


A sad sight…a lost hive

The bees are dead.  All of them.

John is distressed.  In the fall, he loaded each hive with fondant (bee candy made from sugar-water) for them to eat.  He insulated their hives.  They should have been warm and cozy with plenty to tide them over til spring.  This past week, when he was home on a warmish January day, John visited the hives to check on their fondant supply.  He discovered all the bees dead with plenty of honey and fondant still in the hives.  Many of the dead bees had fallen to the bottoms of the hives, but small groups still lay in clusters, faces into the frames.  It appears to be a classic case of starvation death by cold.

Huh, you say?  No, it was not Mrs.  Peacock in the library with a candlestick.

Bees maintain a constant temperature in their hive around 96 degrees.  In the winter, they do this by clustering together in a huddle and vibrating their muscles, kind of like when we shiver.  As the bees on the outside get cold they move inward and others take their place.  (It reminds me of geese flying in the V formation, who take turns in the lead and fall back when they need a break.)  If the temperature gets too cold, the bee colony won’t be able to maintain the proper temperature.  Or, if the bee colony is lacking in critical mass, they won’t have enough bees to generate enough heat.

Capped honey on the left and a cluster of dead bees on the right

Capped honey on the left and a cluster of dead bees on the right

If bees get too cold, they will stick together to conserve heat and to protect any brood in the hive rather than move over to get food. So, a cold cluster of bees will actually starve to death, even though there is food nearby.

Our bees had honey and they had fondant.  They had  been eating the fondant.  They must have gotten cold.

Why?  It hasn’t been terribly cold here.  We understood, a couple of years  back, when the bees did not survive Snowmageddon.  That was an extreme winter.  We had a little bit of snow last month, but overall the weather has been rather mild.  So we are confused.

One hive died before Thanksgiving.  That was disappointing, but since that hive had never been very strong, it was not too surprising.  The other three hives went into winter very strong.  All three hives had young queens who were very productive through the summer.  To lose those hives is very unexpected.

One current working theory is that the bees we have been buying from Georgia are not suited to Maryland winters.  Georgia is a popular source for bees because the mild southern winter means that bees are ready to be shipped north earlier in the spring than bees from, say, Ohio.  An earlier shipment means Maryland beekeepers can have bees taking fuller advantage of the spring blooming.  It means getting more honey that first year.

Another theory is that something caused a massive loss of adult bees in the late fall.  If many bees died off, there would not be enough bees to keep the hive warm.   The usual suspects for such a die-off are the varroa mite and the tracheal mite.

There is evidence in this photo.  Wish I knew what it was.

There is evidence in this photo. Wish I knew what it was.

Mr. Beekeeper did not notice evidence of mites.  And Mr. Beekeeper has tossed away the dead bees that were lying in the bottom of the hive.  Will the remaining few dead bees on the frames reveal anything?  Were they infected with anything or just innocent victims of the cold?

Do we need to do some bee autopsies?  I may be a French teacher, but I was really good at dissecting in my 10th grade biology class.  Give me some tiny tools.  Get me the microscope.  I want to KNOW!

I had no idea when John starting doing beekeeping that I would have to study bee forensics.  We have a mystery on our hands.  We need to solve it.  Buying new bees every year is a very expensive way to get honey.  After four years of this, we were rather hoping to be able to start expanding the number of hives.  Instead, we find ourselves with a lot of beekeeping equipment but no bees.  Clearly, something needs to change.

Last October when we went to the Lima Bean Festival in Cape May, we got talking to a beekeeper from New Jersey.  He tipped us off to his preferred bee– the Minnesota Hygienic.  He has 150 hives and has never lost a hive of Minnesota Hygienics over the winter. They have the advantage of being bred in a more northern climate and (this is the hygienic part) they keep a very clean hive which greatly reduces their susceptibility to the varroa and tracheal mites.

It looks like John will be spending the winter researching a good (northern) source of Minnesota Hygienics.  I will carry on my forensic research on the probable cause of death of the Maywood bees.

Epic inertia

Epic inertia.

Epic inertia.

inertia \i-ˈnǝr-shǝ\ n. a property of matter whereby it remains at  rest or continues in uniform motion unless acted upon by some outside force

epic \ˈe-pik\ adj. extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope

I’m not a physicist, so I have never much pondered the uniform motion aspect of inertia.  To me, inertia has always connotated the slothful inability to get moving.  Which is where I am today…on an epic level.  But why am I epically, slothfully immobile?  It’s because of the epic inertia of the holiday season.  There has been non-stop activity since before Thanksgiving.  Go, go, go, plan, plan, plan, shop, shop, shop.  And then on December 26 I stopped.  By delicious deliberate choice, I did absolutely nothing on December 26 but sit by the fire and read.

And now I can’t get up.

There was an attempt on the 27th which resulted in a nap.  And then, that evening, a vague ” I don’t feel well” which kept me lying in bed all day the 28th.  The 29th I sipped ginger ale and chicken soup and gently did laundry.  The 30th I woke up hungry and attempted raisin bread, which my body begrudgingly accepted.

My sister thinks it’s psychosomatic, that I’m reacting to continued holiday festivities.  I’m willing to hear her out because she herself has been demonstrating negative inertia on two tasks: cleaning her office and calling me to help plan Mom’s 80th birthday party.  That she  called three days before the party showed evidence of some epic procrastination.  In order to avoid calling me, she even attempted to organize her office, but that was so tedious that calling me seemed like the lesser of two evils.

Epic is the operative word here.  Like the little engine that could, the thought of getting started and chugging up that mountain is an agonizing thought.  I think I can, I think I can…no, I can’t.

I’m gonna blame it on Dad.  He’s not here to defend himself.  Seven years ago, my siblings threw a 50th anniversary party for our parents.  It was really nice in the midst of a year full of weddings and graduations and anniversaries.  And Dad pronounced it good.

“Epic!” he said through joyful tears.  “This is epic!”

In a normal family, “epic” would mean a once in a lifetime event.  In our highly competitive, anxiety ridden, over-achieving family, “epic” means “this is the new standard.”  This is why my sister-in-law is still recovering from her daughter’s September wedding.  It was epic.

This is also why my daughter, in a post-partum struggle, was insulted when her doctor told her she would  be a perfectly average mother.  “Average? Did he just call me average?”

Yeah.  Average.  It’s okay.  This Christmas I actually did less shopping than usual, relieved of the need to provide an epic Christmas for everyone.  Guess what?  Christmas was really nice.

I am capable of putting together a large party blind-folded with one hand behind my back and the other hand holding a cane.  Surely I can handle a few party-platters from Wegman’s. The outside force of people showing up at my house in two days begins to operate.  I slowly get off my duff (which is also reaching epic proportions) and gently start moving (because not all of my inertia is psychosomatic).  By Tuesday, forward motion should be propelling me with some positive inertia.  Who knows, maybe Wednesday will actually find me ready to be back at work.

I’m not Santa


I’m not Santa.  I have played his representative at this household for …um…thirty years, but I suddenly find that my term is over.  All my girls have their own little ones and, hence, have assumed the role of Santa for themselves.  And all my girls have their own guys who are responsible for ensuring Christmas happiness and long life for themselves by buying the appropriate girly-pleasing gifts for them.

I am off the hook.CIMG7567


What does this mean exactly?  Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I spend less on Christmas.  Relinquishing the role of Santa corresponds with assuming the role of grandmother–to an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.  (Insert smiley face.)  Consequently, even though I had said that the grands were getting only one thing, I still zipped over to the Hereford Pharmacy to buy some cute little stuffed critters.  I just couldn’t bear to give them each just a plastic thing. For toddlers you  get a lot of bang for your buck with plastic toys, but on Christmas Day, when their naps schedules are all messed up, they need something cuddly to calm them down.  They do.  Trust me.  I’m a professional.   I’ve been doing this Santa thing a loooooooooong time.

There are categories of Santa presents.  If I’ve told you this before, bear with me.  It’s just that it’s important.  Pathetic little tears on Christmas are at stake.   Categories start simple.  Little ones don’t even know Christmas is coming, so lights and boxes to play with are enough.  Soon, very soon, categories become essential.

  • Category 1:  Something to do.  The gift has to keep them  busy for at least part of Christmas Day, and preferably days thereafter.  That is why six year old boys are given 1000 piece Lego sets.  Anything smaller will be assembled in less than twenty minutes.  This could also be called the technology category–Ipads, Ipods, Iphones, I-whatevers.  I..I..I… (me…me…me…?)
  • Category 2:  Something to cuddle.  For little ones, it (hopefully) soothes them through a disrupted nap schedule.  For older ones,  it (hopefully) soothes them through the disappointments of the day.  I failed to fill this category the year my oldest stopped believing in Santa.  She went to bed in tears because she did not get a teddy bear.  How was I supposed to know that it was her test item–the only item on her list that she told no one but Santa?  This category continues to be important through the hormonally treacherous teen years.
  • Category 3:  Something to wear.  Initially this is more a gift to the parents than to the child.  Once the school years begin, it is really important that the child have something new to wear back to school in January, preferably something that is “cool”-whatever “cool” happens to be that year.  Underwear technically fits this category but, for lack of coolness, does not count. Clothing continues to be significant until the child is old enough to work at, say, White House Black Market or Loft.  Once that happens, there is no reason to compete with their hefty discount.  They should be buying you clothes at that point.
  • Category 4:  Something to take to bed.  This can be combined with Category 2.  But usually this involves pjs.  You can’t go to bed with a Lego set or a bicycle.  The perfect Christmas Day ends with warm snuggly pajamas.
  • Category 5:  A surprise.  It’s no fun to only get what you asked for.  That reflects a lack of creativity on Santa’s part.  Some children make this a very difficult category to fill by providing extensive wish lists.   A certain six year old I know thinks he didn’t miss a thing on his list this year.  Responsible adults in the family informed him that even Santa doesn’t have a TV in his room.

    This list is comprehensive but not complete...Santa must fill in missing categories.

    This list is comprehensive but not complete…Santa must fill in missing categories.

So, since I’m no longer Santa, I don’t have to worry about categories.  I am not responsible for their Christmas happiness.  They are responsible for their own families.  And they have men in their lives to fulfill their deepest longings.  So all I have to do is get them a present.  The happiness of the day does not depend on what I get them.  What a relief!  If Christmas Day is a gift-giving disaster, it won’t be my fault.

I repeat the mantra to myself: Not the Santa, not the Santa, not the Santa…  It’s liberating, like when my daughters got married and I was no longer responsible for them.

Then why the extra trip out to buy stuffed animals?  Santa-emeritus just knows.

Santa from Wanamakers in Philly circa 1960

Santa from Wanamakers in Philly circa 1960

peace on earth


Joyful images to “like” on  Facebook: six year old grandson grinning the gap in his smile from his newly yanked front tooth; one year old twins in candy-cane striped pjs caught in the act of “emptying” the dishwasher and trying to escape Mom’s “wrath.”

Candlelight images pleading for us all to pray for the families of the little children and the teachers gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School for no discernable reason.

Joyful image of toddler grandson playing “peek-a-boo” in a closet.

News report of first grade teacher hiding her students in a closet, cradling their faces in her hands and calming them by saying, “Let me see your smile.”

Our perfect Christmas tree, decked out in glory, glows warmly in the background.

A firehouse, set up to sell Christmas trees but now a staging area for national media, beams Christmas red and green in the background.

Boxes of Christmas gifts pile up at my house from all the online ordering I have done.

The guidance counselor at my school notes, “Those children have Christmas presents that they won’t be opening.”

Peace on earth.  Goodwill to men.  As if the tragedy weren’t enough, it comes now–during the season of comfort and joy.  Where’s the comfort?  Where’s the joy?  How can one even enjoy what one has when the pain of others is so, so hard?

My Bible reading this morning took me to seemingly random places that turned out to be not so random at all.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s from Philippians 1:2.  It’s the standard opening line for the New Testament letters.  Oh.  It’s God’s standard opening line.  Grace and peace.  From God.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more… (Philippians 1:9).   In an online essay (“Americans, united in horror for a moment”), AP reporter Ted Anthony quotes dear old Mister Rogers speaking on coping with tragedy:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, `Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,'” he once said. “To this day, especially in times of `disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Thank you,  Mister Rogers, for still keeping our eyes focused on the good in the midst of evil.  May love abound more and more–as  we act on the grace and peace.

The people all tried to touch (Jesus), because power was coming from him and healing them all. … Looking at his disciples he said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  (Luke 6: 19, 21)  There’s that discord, tackled head on.  That line about “blessed are those who weep” can sound really hollow when in the midst of the weeping.  It’s like people trying to comfort the  bereaved by saying, “He’s in a better place.”  It really doesn’t take the hurt away.  Ah…but what if the one saying it had such power that people were trying to touch him to be healed by it?

This is about when Karen Carpenter popped into my head–just a fragment of tune and lyrics.  I had to scroll through my mental Rolodex to place the song.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will
to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead,
nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on
earth, good will to men.”

It is still the season of comfort and joy.  It’s just that today we are conscious of how much we need it. And, like the Who’s in Whoville,  we know that it won’t come from packages, decorations or roast beast.

God rest you merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay;

Remember Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray;

O tidings of comfort and joy.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our  Lord Jesus Christ.


My own medicine

Last week I made my ESL students write three paragraphs on a single topic to three different audiences with potentially three different purposes–to inform, to persuade, or to entertain.  I gave them four possible topics with the option of picking their own.  They moaned and groaned about how mean I was.  You would have thought they were American students.  The next day, I read some really entertaining paragraphs.  The best was from a Chinese student who could not pick a topic.  So he wrote about how hard it is to pick a topic. Unlike an American student doing this to be a wise-guy, Cyrus was really having a dilemma (a vocabulary word that we use a lot) and was pretty sure he’d be getting a bad grade on this assignment.

Cyrus’ first paragraph was addressed to me to persuade me not to ever again give an assignment where he can pick his own topic. Among his reasons was that it takes him forever to choose.  (My comment back to him noted that I did not make him choose his own topic.)  In his second paragraph he explained  to fellow students that, even if he comes up with a topic, he doubts whether he can write a good paragraph about it. Ok, ok, he played the ol’ self-esteem card.  By his third paragraph he was beside himself with frustration.  There was no paragraph–just notes scribbled in the margin:  “How can this topic be entertaining? I’ve spent hours on this assignment.  I quit.  I’m going to bed.”

At this point I was laughing out loud, having been entertained from the first paragraph. But now I’m facing a blog deadline and I…ahem…can’t settle on a topic.  I started one post that potentially wanted to be meaningful with quotes from Martin Luther on Christmas, but–like Cyrus’ second paragraph–I did not think I could do the topic justice in a hurry.  Then I started another one, inspired by a WordPress writing post about using different voices.  So I though maybe a funny letter to Santa thing would be good.  And it might–but the time thing was shutting down creativity and it was sounding really lame.

And then I realized I was being just like Cyrus.   I’ve spent way too much time on this thing.  I have some lesson plans to type up.  And I’m going to bed.  Some random day this week I may be posting a profound post with quotes from Martin Luther or an entertaining set of correspondances with Santa, but tonight, dear reader, you’re stuck with this.

It’s Advent, not Christmas…that’s what I tell myself

I’ve lived long enough to know better, but I still entertain fantasies that the Christmas decorations will go up in a perfectly clean house.  The truth is, my standards and energy levels are going lower every year.

In my idealized world, the screens will come off the windows and the windows will be sparkling clean before I put the candles in the windows.  Sigh.  I used to actually do this.  This year, I slapped the candles in the windows with a little wish that I might get back to those windows to wipe the outside sills clean.  Forget about the screens.  Well, it might happen.  In a bazillion years, when I can afford to retire.

Some people manage to put all the decorations up in one mammoth weekend.  For me, they go up in stages.  I actually like this approach.  It makes decorating an Advent activity, preparing for the  twelve days of Christmas which begin on December 25, rather than celebrating Christmas from Thanksgiving until December 26.

One of the nuns from my childhood taught that the Advent season was the time to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming.  She likened it to preparing our homes for Christmas.  That always stuck with me–Advent as the time of preparation.

The nun, however, neglected to mention all the boxes.  I have boxes of Christmas decorations all over the house.  Boxes filled with boxes, to be precise.  Clear Tupperware storage containers, red-and-green Christmas storage containers, and not a few big plastic trashbags filled with wreaths, and tree ornaments, and lights, and Christmas-y do-dads. I can’t put them away until I’ve emptied them.

This would be easier if putting them away didn’t involve my husband climbing an extension ladder to get into the attic.  In the idealized world, we’d have a pull-down ladder so I could go into the attic whenever my little heart desired.  My grandmother had a very cumbersome entry to her attic.  It involved climbing up the shelves in her linen closet.  It was crazy, but an eighty year old woman could do it.  I, however, cannot get into my own attic.  And so, the Christmas boxes are in the hallway until I can convince my husband to climb back up to store them for the season.  There is a good liklihood that he won’t be convinced, in which case, I will be stacking the  boxes in my office for the duration of the season. And firmly closing the door against curious guests.

I could not survive without doors to close.  I’m not sure what that says about my spiritual preparations, except to say that I’m pretty darn sure I’m stuffing a lot of spiritual stuff in closets, too.

When my kids were still kids and living at home (as opposed to being adults and living at home), I used to do a lot of screaming on Christmas Eve.  “Santa will not come until your rooms are clean!”  It was a desperate move on my part, and for a few brief years even effective, although we all knew that Christmas was coming whether or not the rooms were clean.

Ha–that’s the point.  Christmas is coming, ready or not.  Jesus came, whether Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were ready or not.  Jesus is coming, ready or not.

If bacon drippings were gold

I  have this dream, fantasy….ok, completely unrealistic expectation that one day when I entertain everything will be perfect.  Other people seem to do it.  Martha Stewart comes to mind.  A bit closer to home, my sister-in-law Kathe has the perfect home.  It’s so perfect to the teensiest detail that the lamp in the guest bedroom has a tiny little decorative ladybug on it.  My house gets actual infestations.  Here’s another less out-there example:  my sister, who lives an outrageously crazy life and whose house would at times scare a health inspector, pulled off a house-perfect event this August.

Who knows what lurks in yonder fridge? Today, at least, no bacon drippings.

Some of you are choking on your coffee at this.  Come on, you think, you’ve pulled off two wedding receptions, a cousin reunion, countless Thanksgivings and office parties.  True enough.  Here’s what has set me off:  I just wish that getting ready for Thanksgiving (which involves the death-defying act of cleaning out the refrigerator) did not involve bacon drippings.

My daughter had done a preliminary pass of the fridge, dumping out her old lentils and such.  She saved for me the dish of evaporated something formerly known as junket that had been pushed to the way back and managed to glue itself to the shelf.  I had to remove the entire shelf–with dish attached–and run hot water over it to dislodge the dish.  What made it more annoying is that I love junket and would never have let that get past Day 2 if I had known it was in there.

She also left all the containers of bacon drippings.  She probably did not want to be the responsible party when her dad discovered their absence.  I, however, am willing to “out-wrath” him.  I need room in the fridge for two turkeys, plus a bazillion casseroles, and the fridge is already not big enough.  I need every square inch of shelf space possible.  Multiple–and I mean multiple–containers of bacon drippings are wasting valuable shelf space.  So I pull them all out and discover that two of them are essentially empty!  They aren’t completely empty.  They are end of the peanut butter jar empty.  You could scrape more out if you were desperate for peanut butter, but if you had a fresh jar in the pantry, you’d toss it.  That kind of empty.  But not so empty that you can just plop the greasy thing in the dishwasher with glassware.  So I have to wipe them empty.  I could just run hot water in them in the sink, but it would take a lot of running water plus that much grease is not so great for the pipes and septic system.  So wipe, wipe, wipe.

Why, when I have actual party prep to do, am I cleaning out bacon grease containers?  Why, you ask, are you cleaning out bacon grease containers?  Why, you ask, don’t you just throw them out?  Because, dear reader, they are not in tin (aluminum, whatever) cans–they are in coffee mugs.  As a teacher, I have a plethora of coffee mugs–just yesterday I was given a lovely set of two from a parent who flew in from Korea for parent conferences–but that doesn’t mean I want to just throw them out.

So here I am cleaning out bacon-dripping filled coffee mugs when there is silver to be polished.  And I’m gonna hear it when hubby discovers (probably by reading this) that the drippings are gone.  It’s not like we won’t generate more.  Sheesh.  The way my husband hoards bacon drippings, you’d think they were gold.  If only.  If bacon drippings were gold, I could retire.

Charcuterie:an alternate way to spend time–and money– on the links

Breakfast sausage with Fresh Ginger and Sage

The aroma of freshly grated ginger, minced sage and garlic has my mouth watering for the sausage that John is preparing.  The man-cave, where John works his culinary magic while watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, smells amazing.  This is serious aroma therapy.  This can waft through the house any time.  As for the apes, well, that is what a man-cave is for.  And they usually waft in after a few hours hunting from a deer stand.

“The organ donors are here!” With that pronouncement, a hunter hands me a plastic bag containing a fresh deer heart and liver.  Delighted with the gift, I immediately put it into the man-cave fridge.  The hunters used to toss out the heart and liver, but now that John is into charcuterie, the organ meat is a special treat.

John launched his interest in charcuterie with his (in)famous venison liverwurst.  Then he wowed us with his pepperoni-like jalapeno venison sausage.  Now he masters non-venison sausage.  Last week we had turkey-dried cherry sausage.  It was amazing for dinner with some roasted potatoes and sautéed brussel sprouts.

LEM sausage stuffer with the breakfast link attachment

With the success of the ginger-sage pork sausage, we are now hooked on these little breakfast links.  I’ll use them in the Thanksgiving Day stuffing.  They will be featured at the Christmas morning brunch menu.  What’s left from this batch will be gobbled up by Harper for breakfasts.

My husband can spend time on the links whenever he wants.  Sausage links, that is.  (He doesn’t play  golf–ever.) He’s gotten really quite good at making sausage and we really enjoy the quality and taste of his homemade charcuterie.  However, like anyone addicted to links, his hobby requires the necessary toys…  I mean, equipment.

Heavy duty Waring Pro meat grinder–no plastic parts on this baby.

First he needed a meat grinder.  A good one.  So he got one for Christmas.  Then he needed a smoker.   Well, those are a bit pricey, so he made his own with a few inexpensive items bought at Home Depot.  Yeah, it’s pretty red-necky but I think that’s part of the charm.  Plus, it works.  The meat grinder came with a sausage attachment, but it was annoying to use.  So…next came a sausage stuffer.  And then an attachment for doing the breakfast links.  Now he’s talking about converting a fridge into a humidifier to replicate cool Italian  caves for making  dry-cured sausages.  You see where this is going.  Oh, he’ll get his fridge, but I’m insisting that it be the old fridge and that I get a new one for the kitchen.

The right equipment helps produce good product.  That doesn’t rule out an occasional sub-par performance, from which John has learned some things:

1. There is such a thing as too much fat in sausage.

2.  Not everything tastes better smoked.  This was a hard lesson to learn.  Ten pounds of meat went into a smoked liverwurst that was so bad we didn’t even offer it to my sister’s dog.  To make the loss even worse, John stood over the smoker in the rain protecting it with an umbrella to finish it.  He not only couldn’t eat it, he got cold and wet in the process.


3.  A good cookbook is invaluable.  Recipes for Breakfast Sausage with Fresh Ginger and Sage, Turkey Sausage with Dried Tart Cherries, and Summer Sausage all  came from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (W.W. Norton, 2005).  The book gives excellent instructions on the basics of sausage making and the recipes produce delicious sausages you just can’t buy, as well as sauces and relishes and such to go with them.

If you come over one day and find a new fridge in my kitchen, you’ll know John has gotten his “Italian cave.”  But it will  be a win-win-win situation–I’ll have a new fridge, John will have a new “toy” and there will be more sausage curing in the man-cave for us all to eat.

Sure beats golf.