Perhaps the oldest method of communication over time and distance is the letter. Hand written and then in modern times typed, the letter became one of the most valued of all source materials for historians, scholars and investigators.

Until the advent of the computer and the internet, the hand written letter that was placed in an envelope and mailed or sent by courier was fundamental to communication throughout the world.

Certainly, the runner, the drum, the smoke signal all filled a need and purpose specially in aboriginal cultures but as writing developed, words were put down on the medium du jour, be it wood, clay, papyrus or paper and sent to a recipient at some distance.

I did not grow up in a writing family.  I remember sitting in an elementary classroom with my Big Chief tablet and pencil writing my name and wondering what else could go after that.  It wasn’t until my late 20’s when I was in college that writing letters became a regular part of my life.  As classmates moved on, the need to remain in touch spawned a period of letter writing for which I had no background at all but which I enthusiastically pursued.  I found that expressing my thoughts in a letter was keenly satisfying.  Alas, I had too few correspondents over the years who felt the same way.

My handwriting was minimally decipherable from the beginning.  A genetic defect, I’m sure. I have come to believe this was, at part, the reason for my limited correspondence.  How could you respond to something you couldn’t read?  It’s a fair question.

The thing about a handwritten letter is that it is handcrafted.  This seems too obvious to mention, but by that I mean it is something you can stand back and look at from all angles and re-evaluate and change or polish, and more importantly, leave to age appropriately before posting.  I have been known to tear a letter in two and throw it in the trash, thankful that I did not hastily post it when done.

The other thing about an actual letter is that you can hold it in your hand.  It is a thing, an object, a possession.  Receiving such a letter and holding it is a touchstone common to the sender and the recipient.  It is a shared “thing”.

I love email.  I love my computer with its spelling checker.  I love the speed with which I can communicate with someone and get a reply.  I love it, but it does not compare to the fundamental humanness of a physical letter.

I hardly ever hand write a letter anymore, but I wrote one today.  An old and treasured friend who, at last report, did not have a computer and wrote to me in perfectly legible printed pages.  Front and back.  Often with a line or two of poetry within.  I went on for three pages realizing how good it feels to write a letter and to hold it in my hand for proof reading, then folding it and putting it in an envelope.  

OK, I have to confess – I did not hand write it with a fountain pen.  I did it on my computer and printed it out.  I did, after all want her to be able to read it.  

I think there ought to be a national day of letter writing.  A physical letter that you write by hand with a fountain pen or type out and put in an envelope and mail.  The activity of manually producing a letter seems to me to be critical, not only for the appreciation of our humanity, but also to preserving that appreciation for succeeding generations.  

Teach your children to write letters. Revive the practice yourself.  Pass it on.

Go on and do it.  Write a letter.  Somebody is waiting.

“Write me a letter.  Send it by mail.  Send it in care of The Birmingham Jail.”

Be well and stay in touch  . . . 

Jerry Henderson

Another storm is coming. This one sounds messy. Ice, freezing rain and power outages. I don’t know where the plowman is going to put the snow and slush.

l have, just in case, made a couple of meals that should feed us for the duration of any power failures we may have – mac & cheese (the enhanced version) and a big pot of Border Chili. The latter is always enhanced. I’ll also make a pan of cornbread muffins which can be a meal in and of themselves. I have even considered a bowl of red potato salad but enough is enough. If I had only a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for the next few days I would not starve and would feel moderately nourished as well. Any 12 year old boy knows this.

I also have the generator out and ready to bring online. I hope that’s not necessary. Other preparations include charging up all my electronic devices: iPod, iPhone, Laptop and my Nook that is full of enough reading material to get me through an entire week or more. It glows in the dark!

I have this library book that looked quite good right at the checkout counter and so I brought it home. It’s by a Maine author and it involves a mysterious plane crash decades ago, a suitcase of money, a puzzling list of names and numbers and a bunch of dark characters who seem to be up to no good and who turn out to be – are you ready for this? Fallen angels. Fallen angels? Give me a break. I’ve been tricked. I thought this was just a plain old mystery. Well I am a third into the thing and I will finish the thing. I mean, fallen angels?

You see, these two old codgers go into the woods hunting and stumble on this airplane half subsumed into the sod by this viscous black water pond. Inside they find nearly a quarter million dollars in cash and a strange list of names and numbers. Not only that but there are seats, including the pilot’s seat with handcuffs attached to an arm that has been torn loose. You see what I mean? And right at the center of all this are these characters who have been kicked out of heaven for some celestial infraction, probably smoking in the throne room of God, or whacking off behind the Dormitory of the Saints.

So, this investigator has been engaged to find out what’s up and that’s where I am. It is kind of fun reading about places I actually know from my own experience. Who knows, by the time the power comes back on and the chili is gone, I might be a fan of this guy. I’ll let you know.

OK, now to locate batteries and lamp oil. I see the wind has picked up but so far no precipitation to amount to much. Welcome to Maine in February. The way life should be.

And….Here….We….Go!

For years, among various groups of my friends, the idea was broached, off and on, that a group of us should move into a compound-like setting and while living independently, take care of each other as the need arose. I think it instructive that not one substantive idea was ever floated among us. To me, there is something organic about multi-generational and multi-family communal style living. Perhaps it harkens back to some tribal gene that still floats around in the genetic soup.

I have outlived my ability to deny my extraordinary selfishness and need for personal space. However, the other side of that coin is the reality of my own growing dependence – not yet apparent but inevitable. That this seemingly good idea never got beyond the “what if” stage indicates a real lack of willingness to give up the “castle domain” to any idea that diluted privacy, control and even property.

I recently read an article in the Times about a movement by some builders to build houses that support extended family. These designs usually end up being self contained units that are in some way separated from the larger part of the house. They usually have private entrances and do not require crossing paths with others under the same roof unless intended.

There are zoning problems with this kind of housing in many areas, usually put in place to “protect” the area from what is supposed to be the evils of multi family dwellings and therefore the degrading of the neighborhood. I suppose if someone wanted to install 15 college students in a large house next door that would be a problem – the undisputed value of 15 college students notwithstanding. But to build a mother-in-law apartment in the house or cottage in the back yard is hardly the same thing. Yet zoning ordinances, where they exist, usually prohibit such additions. The thinking is that such a thing is just a foot in the door for those 15 rowdy college boys. Obviously.

The ugly truth is that not everybody is someone others want to live around. One young woman in the article I referred to said she would live in her car before living with any of her family. Such feelings come quickly to the surface when the suggestion of living in close proximity to others, and in particular the family of origin, is proposed.

The close knit village, the tribe, the family compound and the neighborhood have all disappeared into our dusty memories. Yet, the concepts live on as though some unseen hook won’t let go. The dedicated enclave for older people seems to be gaining some ground. The thinking I suppose is that a shared life cycle position would encourage community which would, in turn, become a safety net for all.

All the ideas that have been floated with the intent to bring families and like-minded friends together as they grow older and need support seem to be good ones. If there is money these ideas seem to work more easily, as with everything else in life. For the majority of Americans without such resources what is left is some form of being cared for or at least “monitored” by family, friends or the community, and possibly some combination of these resources.

As I have noted, if there is enough money one can buy into some security and care in one’s old age. What one can’t buy into is what I have been alluding to all along: compassion – to empathize with another’s situation – to suffer with. Compassion is the backbone of human love. Without it all the grand ideas mentioned above are just fluff.

But you need to be careful about compassion. If it gets out of hand, it can define your life. I’ve seen it happen. It’s scary. I’m working on it gently. A little here, a little there. So far, I have learned to spell it and use the word in a complete sentence. There’s hope.

Be well, and stay tuned.

From time to time I make a pot of chili. Chili is not something you want to eat every day. Not, of course, unless you are masochistic or need a de-worming treatment. I really do not understand anyone who can’t enjoy a bowl of red from time to time, and take it hot and spicy. I know – I know: this is New England and the palette is somewhat more refined and sensitive. Think: uneducated. Think: provincial. Think: unadventurous. OK, OK, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. It won’t happen again.

As Nemo approached our little enclave of tranquility, I began to think of food. I mean why not? It needed to be something I could make ahead of time incase the lights went out, and I would have bet money on it with 50 MPH winds in he forecast.

I had just purchased a few red potatoes and felt that if there was a bowl of my famous red potato salad in the fridge I could survive as long as a full day on that alone. So I did that and stashed it in the bottom of the fridge – and forgot it. In the meantime CA became stranded in Auburn where she is a hospice nurse and couldn’t come home Saturday morning as scheduled and had to bunk up at the Hospice House in room # 7, and then do another shift Saturday night. This meant I am alone for supper on a Saturday night. Don’t worry – it’s not the first time.

So anyway, as I was getting a couple of cubes for my “first one tonight” I noticed a tub of frozen Border chili sitting there in the freezer. I say, “Wow, I believe that’s what’s for dinner!”  Well, if I am going to have chili – and I remembered that batch as being specially zippy – I felt that there should be a pan of jalapeño cornbread just to maintain a sense of harmony. And it could be made ahead of time. The chili could be heated on the wood stove if necessary. I’m all set.

Then I remembered the bowl of red potato salad in the bottom of the fridge and was suddenly struck with the realization that I was about to put on the table three of the world’s most valued foods. Border chili, ( any border will do ) Jalapeño Cornbread and red potato salad.

Now, folks, I can just hear the naysayers in chorus decrying such a combination but I can tell you that unless you have tried it keep quiet and dig in first. Obviously cornbread and chili are a natural pair, but cornbread and red potato salad go together well. So, if the cornbread and red potato salad go together and the cornbread and chili go together, wouldn’t it be logical that the chili and red potato salad are suited to each other as well? Of course. Any rational mind can see this. And besides, the potato salad serves to cool down the “bite” for the more sensitive tongue.

Suddenly, a snow bound Saturday night was alive and taking nourishment.

There was once a place on S Broadway in Bangor called Perry’s Famous For Clams. It was a biker, blue collar neighborhood “regulars” kind of place. On any given evening it was not unusual to have a cop swing through looking for someone and heading straight for the kitchen, or have the same three or four people sitting on the same stools nursing their light beers into the evening, each in his or her own private place. It was a comfortable place where everyone was comfortable with everyone else.

This was tested from time to time. One evening with the temperatures in the single numbers and three foot snow banks preempting most parking spaces we were there feasting on some of those famous clams with crumbs rather than batter – both were famous – and this rather portly woman, dressed in high heels, stockings, knee length dress, baubles of every kind and mink coat, sort of slithered off her stool and found an unoccupied booth in which to lay down and proceed to go to sleep. Nobody seemed to be that upset and clams were consumed in prodigious amounts along with enough beer to take the edge off a rather cold winter’s night.

After a while a taxi driver came in and the barman nodded toward the mink coat and all eyes turned temporarily toward a situation that promised, if nothing else, to be entertaining. With great amounts of prodding and levering and pleading in terms that led me to think this had happened before, the mink coat was coaxed out to the cab and hopefully to her warm bed somewhere in the Queen City. It was not unusual, as I looked around the room, to see smiles and lips moving in whispers, as was happening at my table as well. I mean TV couldn’t even get close to this.

Woefully, Perry’s Famous For Clams was bulldozed to make way for a huge parking lot and another Shaws High Priced grocery store. How much actual culture do we need to give up for more over priced, over packaged, over hyped processed food? And don’t forget the acres of smooth gray concrete.

Here’s my favorite Perry’s Famous For Clams story. Quite late one night after practicing for a play I was starring in ?, a few of us went out looking for a late night bite to eat. You know how it is. Nothing was open and then we thought of Perry’s. Of course, it was open. However, the kitchen was closed. No clams. We put on out best sorrowful faces and the guy shook his head falling for our little “act” saying that all he could do for us is a sandwich and all he had was bologna. And it’s white bread, he added. We all laughed. You ever had a bologna sandwich and a pint of ale? It could have been much worse, and in fact we enjoyed it. It was midnight in central Maine. We knew our options were limited.

When we called for the check the barman charged us only for the ale. We thanked him profusely and he smiled graciously and said for us to get out so he could close up.

Though it’s two hours away on a good night, It would be comforting to know Perry’s Famous For Clams was still there on a frosty winter’s night – with a bologna sandwich for back-up.

When I sit in my soft chair in the morning with my cup of darkroast, I look out two windows that are about eight feet apart. The one on the right presents a view of thick trees and a few patches of northeastern sky beyond. The left window gives onto the hillside that is immediately behind the house and to the north. 

These views are fundamentally different, yet are vitally connected. I am reminded of what it must be like for some animals with eyes on the sides of their heads. You have to wonder what their brains do with all that information. I think the idea is that they have a heightened awareness of their environment beyond 180? to as much as 350+ degrees. A kind of defense mechanism – and early warning system, you think?  You’d have to ask representatives of the prey family of critters – those who are more likely to be eaten – rabbits, song birds, squirrels and deer, for instance, all with eyes on the sides of their heads.

Unfortunately, I am able only to see what’s presented in one window at a time. In practice, I don’t spend much time thinking about the issue. I just look out one window and think, “That’s nice”, then I check out the other window and think, “Wow! That’s nice too”.

My mind hurts when I try to visualize what a 350? field of view would be like sitting here in this nice easy chair. I like being able to move my eyes and turn my head to pick up the edges of my field of vision. When I try to “see” both windows at the same time I end up seeing mostly the wall and mirror that is between the windows, and switching back and forth between the two. But that’s how we are made, isn’t it?

The best thing I have going is peripheral vision where one or the other eye becomes aware of something off to the side that the opposite eye can not see; then I can look more directly at it with both eyes. A side benefit, however, is depth perception. With eyes on the front – binocular vision – I can tell pretty much how far away an object is. Squirrels, and others of the prey family with monocular vision, jump at any movement since they do not know how near or far the danger really is,

Thinking about these things makes me wonder whether there is a profound life lesson lurking in all this. Something that would measure up to such eternal verities as, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, or, “a watched pot never boils”. The best I can come up with is, “Seeing is believing”. Then I am aware that often that what is seen is not much on which to base a belief. As in, “Now you see it – now you don’t”. Ask five people to describe what they have seen at the same instant and place and you get five different stories. I wonder what five rabbits or squirrels would describe in such a situation.

All I know is that I am happy not to have eyes on the sides of my head. How do you read with a set up like that? I guess one plus would be that I could see out of both of my windows at the same time.

Thought for the day: look both ways, maybe four if you count up and down. You never know what’s coming.

Springtime in VacationLand?  41? and foggy above leftover snow.  Been raining some. Can winter be only half over?  Hot Community Darkroast at my elbow.  Brings back memories of the early days of my addiction. It’s an extraordinarily gray, dark, dank and dreary day.  That’s a G and three D’s.  I’ll have to make a special effort toward the more cheery side of life today.  I guess I could turn a light on.  Cooking something could help.  Eating something, the one-stop cure for everything, could and probably will be the answer.  I have this great cauliflower recipe.  Some kind of Indian thing called aloo gobi masala, with potatoes and tomatoes and curry.  Of course, I could just re-engage our on-going task of cleaning up the collected clutter of decades and hauling it to the dump, um, that would be transfer station.  Transfer to where, I wonder.  Ever notice how the point these days is to name things according to function rather than what it’s actually used for?  I dump, they transfer.  I remember the good old days, standing in the bed of my old ’68 Dodge D-100 raking out the week’s collected garbage, junk and yard litter, listening to the gulls and chatting up my neighbors.  Those were the days.  Of course there was the smell.  I wonder – is it actually possible to meditate in January?

Formally, I was a balloon tired, single speed, undocumented, 14 year old bicycle daredevil.  I lived on my bike.  We were a set.  Mostly me and Richard Earl, and sometimes, Tinkie, FF and J-Boy.  We were not tied together by baseball bats or footballs but we were brothers on our bicycles.

We would ride the six miles up to Harding Field to swim at the decommissioned Officer’s Club swimming pool.  Then on the way home we would ride down the middle of Plank Road with cars behind us for blocks.  We thought we were entitled.  We would bask in what we thought was our glory, but it was in fact adolescent stupidity.  Daredevils are often stupid.

Coming down was never thought to be the problem.  It was getting to the top that was the issue.  Remember we were a couple of 14 year old boys that lived on our bicycles.  We were in petty good shape, but once we had to stop and lean into the rail to catch our wind.  Finally, after what seemed to be forever, we made it to the top of the bridge out of wind but thrilled.  Now came the downhill, which was the point of the whole exercise, of course.

Blithely we began the roll to the west side of the river.  We picked up speed and noticed that we were keeping up with traffic.  Richard reported later that his bike vibrated so that he was afraid it would come apart.  My eyes watered as we flew down the incline the half mile to the bottom.  We had to make the turn for the loop back beneath the bridge or else we would be committed for miles of flatland peddling.  

I hoped the pavement was free of debris as we leaned into the turn for the loop. We were still moving at an unpracticed speed, driven by our downhill momentum.  Leaning into the turn and gently breaking, we finally slowed down enough to make the turn safely and coasted over to the east bound lane and stopped to catch our breath – to let ourselves feel things we were not used to feeling.  

We were “pumped”.  We had already figured out that the “run out” on the East side was twice as long and we would be able to handle that much easier, in that all we had to do was to stay in the saddle and ride it out without turning. 

After taking a whiz in the tall grass beneath the bridge as the cars clattered by overhead, we buttoned up – looked at each other and smiled.  We had done it.  Then we nodded in the somber realization that we were only half way through.  To get home, we had to cross the wide Mississippi once more.

As we eased into the eastbound traffic, my legs felt like rubber.  I began to doubt my ability to ride to the top.  But after a while, pacing ourselves, we began to feel the rhythm and managed to get to the top without stopping.  Reaching the long flat span across the river, it seemed that the danger of the whole enterprise hit home for both of us, as we later acknowledged.  I wanted to look out at the vast industrial complex on the east side of the river but was afraid to take my eyes off the road for an instant with traffic speeding by inches to my left.

Soon we began the downhill glide that would take us home at a speed that seemed much faster than before.  We both reported vibration and sounds that were unfamiliar and ominous.  Finally after our speed bled off we made the turn for the Scenic Highway and home.

We stopped at Baton Rouge Bayou and rested under the bridge and practiced our “war stories”.  We had survived.  We replayed each part of our adventure and indulged in some yelling and laughter.  After a while  I said, “So what are you going to do now?”  He said, “I don’t know, I guess I’ll go home.”  “Yeah, me too,” I said.

For years after on the many weekend trips home from college driving over that same bridge, that had been widened by four feet to reduce the danger, I never failed to smile and shake my head in wonder.  I always thought, “Yes! We really did that.”  And I never failed to add, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” – but always with a smile.

THE CHILI OPTION FOR SURVIVAL

24. January 2013 · 1 comment · Categories: Uncategorized

You may have noticed: IT’S COLD!  And it’s going to get just as cold tonight as it did last night, and perhaps more.  What to do – what to do?

For me and my house we’re going to have chili.

I wasn’t going out today except to the mailbox, but in order to make my regionally famous Border Chili, ( any border will do ) I would need to go out and find the beef. I always love an excuse to go to Bow Street Market and that is where I can get the natural beef we eat when we eat beef.  It’s local and un-medicated.

Here is my formula for a dynamite bowl of red.  Go on – you know you wanted to know.

2 lbs of Pineland Farms stew meat cut into small bits of various sizes.  If you want to add a little regular ground meat you can.  Maybe some pork or squirrel.

8 cups of water to which is added two cans of beef consommé.  This really kicks up the beef flavor

Two good sized onions chopped coarsely

7 to 10 large cloves of garlic minced 

About 1/3 cup of sliced jalapeños.  

Around 8 or 9 T of chili powder.  I use Pendery’s Original and Top Hat with a little New Mexican Chimayo for flavor.  Check http://www.penderys.com  for a good source.  Obviously, you can use any chili powder you want, but I can vouch for the quality and flavor of these which I buy by 1/2 to 1 pound amounts.

Bring the liquid to a boil and add the meat stirring to break up the pieces that stick together.  There is going to be lots of foaming.  Skim off the darker parts and stir down the rest.  You are not going to eliminate it all.

When the meat has cooked – about 15 minutes of this vigorous boiling – add the onion, garlic and chili powders.  You might want to reserve a third of the chili powders to test the taste after a couple of hours and add the rest to adjust the taste. Aw, just throw the lot into the pot.  You will love it.

Turn the fire down to low and let it alone, except for the occasional stirring, for 3 or 4 hours.  Keep an eye on the liquid and add some water now and then to keep the level up but do not thin it too much.

I like a little body to my chili.  There are several ways to achieve this but my favorite is to use some masa.  It can be found where ever the corn meal and flour is found. You will find, Masa Harina, which is a corn flour used extensively in Mexican cooking.  I take about a third of a cup of masa and whisk into it about a cup or so of water or the hot liquid.  Use enough liquid to make a thin mix.  Stir this into the chili and this seems to do the trick.  Remember, you don’t have to thin it at all.

Taste as you go along.  You’ll know when it is right.  Tasting as you go you will find a not so subtile improving and blending of the flavors used in the recipe.

You will notice I didn’t mention salt and pepper.  Be careful it seems to be savory enough.  The consommé contains salt as well as some of the chili powders.

Just eating chili as it is is great.  But I like it over a little rice.  Now and then I love some grated cheddar on top.  If it is too warm for you tender lipped souls out there, have a dollop of sour cream with some chives on the side with which you can dress the occasional spoon.

It goes without saying that a little cornbread couldn’t hurt a thing.  Perhaps a glass of porter.

You will notice I didn’t mention beans.  Put them in if you want.  You might be interested in knowing that not a single Terlingua Champion has ever put a bean in his/her chili.  

You know, just talking about this has warmed me up considerably.  I hope it helps you as much.  

Stay warm.  And stay tuned.