Monday, February 21, 2011

President Ford rides the rails

In honor of President's Day, our local paper, the Peoria Journal Star, asked for stories of readers' encounters with past, current, or future POTUSes. Here is my story:

During the 1976 campaign, President Ford traveled the rails making “whistle stops” in communities across the country.

In the fall, Ford came through Illinois by rail with a mighty Amtrak engine leading the way. He and his wife, Betty, stood at the back of the train waving to crowds who gathered at station stops to greet them. I believe that in some of the larger cities, such as Springfield and St. Louis, special events were planned as the train made its stop.

I must have read about this in the paper or seen it on the news. I was 14 and had a Newfoundland puppy who loved to swim. We would often walk from our house over to “the pond,” a watering hole beside the railroad tracks that had once served the steam engines. Hector loved to dive into its murky water.

As I watched him swim, I was not surprised to see a train, decorated in patriotic bunting, chugging down the tracks. President Ford, standing alone at the back of the train, waved happily at me and Hector until the train pulled out of sight.

The memory of unexpectedly seeing the President of the United States in my little town of Auburn and having that moment all to myself made me feel special. The fact that Gerald Ford was that man also seems significant. He was destined to lose that election, but I think all of us understood that he was, to the nation, a hero.

Read more stories from readers at

The photo is of my sister and "The Heck" at the pond.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

compost heap

When I lived, years ago, in Topeka, KS, we rented a tiny one-bedroom house that had a small yard. I decided to try my hand at gardening. The soil proved rich and fertile and my plants grew easily.

I also started a compost pile that did quite well. It was close enough to the house that I could carry out kitchen scraps, right by the garden so rotted vegetables or debris could be dumped in, and near the hose so I could water it diligently, which, it turns out, is an important key to good composting.

In my current house in Peoria, I set up composting piles a few years back but unfortunately put them way at the back of the lot for aesthetic reasons. I got out of the habit of carrying my garbage back there and watering the piles frequently was out of the question. They sat cold and lifeless.

Today, inspired by the wonderful sunshine and warm, fecund, weather, I moved one of my portable, plastic "Earth Machine" compost containers nearer the house. I put in rotting leaves that I had raked the other day, decaying wood pieces from the firewood pile we recently finished off, and some humus that had fallen out of a rotten tree we cut down last fall. These should all contain vital organisms for creating a thriving compost heap.

I also watered it and will leave off the lid tonight so it can soak in the expected rain.

Tomorrow I'll begin carrying out kitchen scraps.

Feel the heat!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

My Thoughts: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Mr. Wroblewski is a significantly talented writer. His descriptions of animals, the Wisconsin countryside, and people are magnificent. One can get lost in them.

I loved this novel for its ability to bring the reader close to the characters and the dogs. We are there in their world and touching them.

When Edgar runs off with three pups to the forest, intensity builds. The reader cannot turn away.


This novel seems to waver and undulate. The reader weaves and turns. Grasps and then must let go.

Character development seems uneven. Who is Claude and from whence comes his propensity for murder? Why is his brother, Gar, such a different person? A three-page conversation over a game of canasta may give some clues… if the reader can manage to wade through its painful verisimilitude.

Edgar also seems a different person at times. He has tremendously wise and complex thoughts for someone in his early teen years. His love for his pups and for Almondine bespeaks a tender personality. His wisdom and care for the dogs when he sets off into the wilderness suggest a person mature beyond his years. So, when Claude offers to teach him to drive his maniacal behavior behind the wheel is most puzzling. One could attribute such behavior to his hatred of his uncle and the recent loss of his father, but still, it is not in keeping with the character we find in other parts of the novel.

When Edgar runs off with three pups to the forest, the novel builds to its climax. We hope he and the pups survive. He learns what training really means. He understands the importance of the Sawtelle breed. He can carry it on, confident in himself and his knowledge.

When he needs help for his injured pup, he knocks on a random farmhouse door. The man who answers, Henry, could be a dangerous man, and the author deftly paints such suggestions. But, luckily for Edgar, Henry turns out to be extremely kind and "trustworthy" and helps him. Most touchingly, he comes to truly love Edgar and his dogs. The chapters about Henry and Edgar are some of the book's most enjoyable ones to read.

Upon his return home, however, Edgar loses all. He pulls his grandfather's and father's files from the barn/kennel as it bursts into flames, having understood that documenting each litter means everything for the survival of his family's unique breed.

But he himself does not survive the ordeal. His uncle, who killed his father with a potion obtained during his tour of duty in Korea, uses the same poison on Edgar.

He dies and is reunited with his father and beloved dog, Almondine, who was his friend, nursemaid, and protector. These moments of connection surely bring a reader to tears.

Still, I am so troubled by the fact that he survives the ordeal in the forest, feeding himself and the pups with stolen Twinkies and Spaghetti-O's. These events are so tangible, so contemporary, so full of promise of survival, making the later events all the more implausible.

And during this ordeal, Edgar reaches an epiphany about the future, a realization that could move the breeding program forward.

But then he is killed and his mother, we suppose, never knows why or how. Does she ever know that Claude, who has supplanted her husband in her life, killed her husband and her son? And, during the final scenes, how is a blinded man able to hold this strong woman back from saving her son?

Mr. Wroblewski, in an interview with Oprah, read a quotation from Kafka about how tragedy is what keeps us reading, its what strikes a mallet through the frozen ice of our hearts.

That's great, but unfortunately the ending of this novel is not tragic. In a tragedy, the protagonist's epiphany would be an understanding of the past before he dies. The protagonist would not be an adolescent whose epiphany is about the future — his own, his mother's, and that of his family's kennel.

I wasn't left gasping for breath or holding my heart as I would be at the end of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Instead, I felt cheated.

If Edgar realized the importance of this breed and this kennel. If he finally understood the importance of his family's training regime and why people would pay a significant price for their adult dogs, he should be allowed to live and make that vision a reality.

To kill him off is, I believe, a contrivance. The author may be striving for great tragedy, but this ending misses the mark.

This novel draws many obvious parallels with Shakespeare's Hamlet, but I have to ask why? This too seems contrived but also seems to have seduced many reviewers with its headiness. But, I must ask, what is the purpose of drawing parallels between Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Edgar, mute nature boy of Wisconsin? I don't get it. It seems to be stretching for literary connections when in reality great literature is right at this talented author's fingers on the keyboard. He does not need Shakespeare to create a beautiful Great American Novel. The lofty Shakespearean connections are frankly quite lost on me, a kid of the Midwest and a student of literature, who has read lots of Shakespeare.

And to have the dogs wander off into the wilderness without their human leader? Will the older dogs really be able to provide for them? Many of these dear animals will surely die painful deaths. And, if they do not reunite with humans, all the breeding for the perfect companion dog will have been for naught, which is the most maddening thought of all.

This writer has tremendous talent, but needs help shaping the words into a coherent whole. This novel offers the reader such pleasure and such promise that one is most angry at the editors and the final outcome. This writer's talents were squandered by poor editing.

I must say, however, that I really look forward to his next novel. I hope he continues to write about landscape, about people, and, most of all, about dogs.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

step up to the plate and tackle

I love a mixed metaphor—especially one involving sports.

"We have two opportunities to do something important for the country on spending and debt; we ought not to miss this opportunity," [Senator Mitch] McConnell said, referring to budget, which expires March 4, and the debt ceiling, which the country is likely to hit by the end of March. "The president ought to step up to the plate with us and tackle it together." *

But should they wear their baseball or football uniforms? Hmm.

* quoted in Chris Cillizza's "The Morning Fix."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mississippi John Hurt

I've written before about Mississippi John but feel the need tonight to remind ya'll of his wonderfulness. Amazing.

Just make him a pallet on your floor.

Coffee Blues, of course, is my favorite.
A spoonful of Maxwell House will do you as much good as two or three cups of that other coffee. Indeed.

John Hurt was from Avalon

I love him and find him an inspired musician who truly represents the wonderful diversity and magnificence of our country.


Go higher.

Hire someone.

So many of our fellow country men and women are out of work.

Do you right now have the capacity to hire someone?

Then do it! Don't hesitate.

So many talented, skilled people are right now looking for work. We, as a country must pull together and lift each other up.

You think government should get out of our lives?

Then don't wait for the next round of stimulus funds or employer incentives.

Do the right thing right now. Hire your talented neighbor.

Once this country is back to work the economy will prosper and your gamble on that person will become a bonus and a benefit.

So many people are just waiting for a nod. They want to work and contribute. They do not want to be at home staring out the windows or at the screen on their computer.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The neighbors' lights

The neighbors' lights seem distant and dim.

A blizzard is slamming down upon us. We have blowing snow, lightning, thunder, and huge drifts.

My mind goes back to childhood, 1977, when a huge blizzard hit. We had horses at a farm about a mile down the road. Once a day, we bundled in all the clothes and coats we could find and went down to tend those beautiful animals. We broke the ice to find them water and fed them the oats and hay we had stored in the fall.

I remember walking to feed the horses in a huge blizzard. Dad got worried and started up the old Chrysler to come rescue us. Of course it got trapped in the huge drifts and we all ended up walking home.

Tonight I'm safe at home in town. If the power goes out, we have a gas fireplace to turn on. It's on right now keeping me warm so we can turn down the thermostat. I guess I am safe.

But the safety I felt back then, with my horses needing me and my father worrying over me, was powerful. When we got back home, my mother had soup waiting.

Tonight, the neighbors' lights, across the snow drifts and blowing snow, seem distant and dim.