Freddie, the French Bulldog

Freddie, the French Bulldog
Lazing on a sunny afternoon

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
Beautiful Ellie Mae

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
A boy and his elephant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother

Love is a many-splendored thing

Love is a many-splendored thing
Denise and Ollie Mac

The view out my kitchen window

The view out my kitchen window
Snow Business

Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby

Beauty

Beauty
Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

Self-portrait

Self-portrait
Markie

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

bellspringsmark@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Abracadabra

I knew I would have to be organized in order to pull off baking two pumpkin pies, while visiting with my little sister JT. The pies were for a dinner celebrating Ollie Mac’s third birthday, later on that evening, and JT was only going to be here for a couple of hours or so. She had come up the day before for the first time since last September for both Ollie's birthday and that of Frankie, his cousin. The thing is, I get so ungrounded when she is here, that half the time I feel as though I am hovering over the two of us. Nevertheless, I convinced myself I could bake the two pies for the simple reason that organization paves the way for success.

That nice Keelee had already made the cassava flour pie crusts, so all I had to do was brown them for fifteen minutes or so and then add the pumpkin pie mix. When she shopped for pumpkins at the hippie store, we had agreed that if there were no pumpkins, any yellow winter squash would be fine, except for maybe spaghetti squash. Keelee settled on butternut squash when she could not find pumpkins, and that was just fine. The bottom line is that without the spices, both pumpkin pie and squash pie would be bland but with the spices, regardless of what type of winter squash is used, voila! You have pumpkin pie.

We are cooking on-farm without dairy these days, so I was substituting coconut milk for cow’s milk, along with replacing three-fourths the amount of sugar called for, with honey. Before JT even arrived I had already combined two tablespoons of gluten-free flour, two teaspoons of cinnamon, two teaspoons of ginger, one teaspoon of nutmeg, one-half teaspoon of salt and one-quarter teaspoon of cloves into a measuring cup, and set it to one side. I found it mildly interesting that six of the recipe’s ten ingredients, did not take up enough space to fill even a one-cup container. 

I had peeled, cut up, steamed and mashed the squash earlier so it was ready for action. I had eggs, coconut milk and the honey also measured out and ready to assemble, and honestly, I was feeling pretty stoked. I did not see a flaw in my plan.


I had even cut out both parchment paper and aluminum foil templates to cover the crusts around the edge of the pies to prevent them from cremating. I used to use only foil but now realize that cooking with foil is questionable, due to the connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. So I put the parchment paper on the crust first and the foil over that, so there was no contact between foil and crust.


I was glad I did, too, because those pies just baked and baked and baked for two hours, and the longer they baked, the more baked I became. JT had long since hit the road and I was handling my stress by handling the bong. I stuck the icepick into the center of both pies so many times, it was submitting paperwork for overtime pay.


Why would the pies not set? I had used coconut milk before, but had I used honey instead of sugar? Could that be why the pies were not getting firm? They looked fine and even the crust was cooperating by not cremating but frankly, I was not interested in pumpkin soup.


Mindlessly I began to clean the kitchen counter, rinsing both the big silver bowl used to mix all the ingredients, and the big bowl for the squash. I cleaned the smaller dish used for the eggs and honey and rinsed off all of the measuring spoons, spatulas and big wooden spoons used along the way.  


As I started to gather all of the recipe ingredients to return to the pantry, I grabbed the zip-loc bag in which the flour was stored. As I did so, I saw to my shock, the measuring cup with the spices and the flour.


Horrified, I connected the dots: The pies were not setting up because there was no flour, and if the flour was missing, so were all of the spices. I had managed to bake two squash pies with the personality of mush. What now? Regardless of where they came from, I needed to produce two pumpkin pies.


Possible solutions enveloped my mind, billowing forth like the smoke from my bong, all equally ephemeral. First, I had enough “pumpkin” to make the mix but it was still in its original form: a butternut squash. To convert it to pumpkin took much time. Second, I did not have cassava flour for two more crusts. Third, whereas I had almond flour to make the crusts, I had been specifically asked to avoid it. Finally, even if I could somehow create two more pies from scratch, they would never cool off in time for dinner.


Just like that, the solution hit me like an oversized cream pie in the kisser: Because the pies had not yet set up, all I had to do was divide the already whisked missing ingredients into two parts, and add them to the two pies, respectively. If I sprinkled the ingredients from the measuring cup evenly over the top of the two pies, and then gently rotated the whisk around and around them, I ought to be able to infuse the requisite pizzaz into these otherwise tasteless attempts at a small boy’s birthday “cake.”


Unorthodox, at best, and somewhat bizarre at worst, I nonetheless went about the business of correcting my mistake, blending the essential spices and flour into the mixture. Surprisingly, once I had put them back into the preheated oven, the pies set up almost right away and were ready for our singing of “Happy birthday” later that evening. 


I was washing dishes as the pie was distributed, and I held my breath waiting for the inevitable question, “What happened?” It never came and fortunately, I remembered to start breathing again. 


In a perfect world, you want to avoid the circus tent approach to baking, but if you find yourself in the midst of said arena, make like the magician you are, and pull two pumpkin pies out of your hat.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Dog, Gone

After feeding the dogs their breakfast Tuesday morning and letting them outside, I instructed them to meet me at the front gate for their morning walk. I took a bodacious bong rip and donned a second hoodie, before joining them out in the cold air. I paused at the Subi long enough to snag the two dog leashes, left there after our trip to Ukiah on Monday, before heading out to the gate to meet Ellie Mae and Freddie. Approaching the gate, it was immediately evident that Freddie the French bulldog was a dog, gone.

Only Ellie Mae awaited me at the gate, obviously aware that the pesky little Frenchie was not there, but at a loss to explain. Or maybe she did but her explanation fell on deaf ears.

“Ellie Mae! Stop barking!”


Both dogs love walking in the snow.
I had no frame of reference for Fred’s disappearance because like most dogs, he lives for this daily walk up the driveway to Bell Springs Road. I know he loves his walks because he tows me up the steep incline every morning, and makes me dig in my heels on the way back down, to avoid a face-plant. Besides, I had just let him out the front door a minute before.


All that notwithstanding, where was the little dude? Digging something up of a gopherous nature out in the orchard? Galloping toward Lito’s spot after escaping the two-acre compound? Or strewn out over the ground after being toyed with by a bobcat? 


“Let’s go, Ellie Mae. If Freddie has better things to do than walk with us, we’ll just leave him to his bid-ness.”


Oh, those eyes...
Recognizing that those were some pretty bold words for the situation, I carried out my threat and walked with a pretty little rescue pup from Covelo, just as I did before a little bulldog burrowed his way into our hearts. Well, into my heart, anyway. Though the mom in Ellie Mae did a lot of mothering when Freddie was still a pup, she now sees him for the nefarious little dog that he is, vying for my attention.


And though my attention span is only a fraction of what it once was, it still surpasses the collective attention span of two sweet fur babies.


Upon returning from our walk, I went around hollering Freddie’s name, as though after all this time he would realize that the joke was on him. My hollering produced no results, except to get all of the other dogs in the 'hood barking. 


I took care of the chickens, moved a couple of wheelbarrows of firewood, cleaned up the detritus from coffee and a fruit salad and texted Lito:


“Freddie is MIA. Is he over at your spot?”


“Not that I am aware of,” came the prompt response. Since Freddie rarely goes anywhere without everyone being aware he is around, I’m certain that Lito would have known it if Fred was anywhere in his ‘hood.


“Shoot, shucks and duckens,” I said to Ellie Mae, or possibly something more colorful, I can’t rightly say.


“Nothing more to be done but roll up a phattie and hit the road, searching for a little bulldog, who must be off on an excursion. What do you say, Ellie Mae?”


Oh, those ears...
And so it was that together, Ellie and I both found Fred, by opening the car door at the same moment that Fred opened up his sleepy eyes. Sprawled on the car’s back seat, he peered out at us as if to say, “Are we there yet?”


I flashed back to when I had snagged the dog leashes from this same car, and how it was darker than Freddie’s coat, as I fumbled around the back seat until I had both leashes. Not needing a headlamp in the bright moonlight outside, I had not had one on at the precise moment that Fred traded places with the leashes. 


Luckily I already had a celebratory Bell Springs Bomber rolled for the occasion.









Saturday, March 27, 2021

Come and Get it!

There are two types of cooking in this universe: cooking because you want to and because you must. There is a vast chasm between these two choices, and rare is he who encompasses both categories simultaneously. I am he.

May I present my OJT credentials? I can remember cooking/butchering easy-over eggs in our pre-1959 kitchen on Fellowship Street, which meant I was not yet seven. That I was allowed access to the stove and cooking utensils is a bit surprising, but I suppose Mama’s logic was that if I could cook my own eggs, then she didn’t have to.


I was Mama’s chief go-to for baking all through grade school for whatever was needed, from cookies to cakes. Just as importantly, I was the family popcorn-popper all of my young life, for the simple reason that I never burned it. 


I used to be Papa’s sous chef, though we didn’t use that term in those days. I was his helper. I peeled and cut up the potatoes [almost] daily, diced onions, peppers, celery, garlic and whatever else needed prepping and, of course, I was one of the pot wallopers after dinner was over. 


Sage, rosemary & thyme
During summer with parental permission, I was allowed to cook over an open fire in the back yard, right next to the lemon tree faucet (for obvious reasons). I fried hot dogs and fresh potatoes. Bravely-even heroically-I choked down those tates, wondering as I did so, how they could be both burned on the outside and raw on the inside. It defied logic but I ate them anyway. And then “cooked” them again the next morning, grimly refusing to share lest anyone find out the truth.


While in the army, I cooked on the oil-burning stoves in the hootch in Korea, at least during the long, frigid winter. You would be amazed at the concoctions I created, using Korean Ramen before Ramen was even introduced “back in the world.”


We took turns on War Admiral Avenue, in San Jose, cooking for any and all of the six inhabitants of the house when it was our turn. It was a corner lot and we had crammed an amazing garden in the backyard, and canned a stack of tomatoes for using all winter. We were vegetarians for the most part during that fifteen-month period, because we were too poor to afford meat.


Meat & potatoes means 
shepherd's pie now.
I was pretty much a meat/potatoes kind of guy, when Annie opened my eyes-and-stomach-to an entirely new universe of culinary diversity. The wealth of knowledge she possessed was unlimited even before the internet. I absorbed cooking skills from her for almost forty years and nothing I do is devoid of her lessons and techniques.


Besides barbecuing, which I have done since the boys were small, a specialty of mine was breakfast featuring hash browns and chili omelet. And if you are interested in other "gourmet cuisine," I have been cooking chicken cacciatore since back in the seventies. Even Annie would not cook it because she said she could not top mine. Coming from her it was high praise.


Like most cooks my training has been on-the-job, with Annie around for consultation purposes, and my own taste buds being my best/worst critic. So when Casey asked me last April if I wanted to cook lunch on weekdays for the HappyDayFarms staff, I was stoked. He’s been eating my cooking all his life and is still here to tell about it, so I figured he must be OK with it.


Summer 2019 I grew 300 tomato plants.
I had already determined that I was not going to be able to work in the orchard with tomato plants, as I had for the previous five years. The reason was a defective left [dominant] shoulder, which refused to get better because I would/could not stop using it. Unfortunately, I knew I was not going to be pitch-forking those eight rows of tomatoes out there in the orchard, not with an injured shoulder.


Pitch-forking mashed potatoes, however, was another matter entirely.


Next: Cooking for the HappyDayFarms staff 


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Patti

The logical way to overcome sadness is to once again achieve happiness. When I wrote my blog piece a year ago about eventually seeking a woman of my age, I was not asking for anyone to replace Annie. I was asking for another opportunity to love and be loved by a woman of mature age. I specified that I was not interested in booty-calls or one-night-stands, and that I had no timeframe-only a mind-set.

(https://markyswrite.blogspot.com/2020/03/mature-women-only-need-apply.html)


For seven-and-a-half years Annie fought a war she knew she could not win. What she gained through her efforts was time, enough to see the birth of her first grandchild. Side-by-side Annie and I battled together, but when she slipped away, that savage kick to my solar plexus still flattened me.


You can know it’s coming and you can prepare for it, but the pain is still going to hit you like a logging truck. Getting knocked down, run over and dragged along by a logging truck is a downer, but if you survive the original hit, then there is nowhere to go but up.


My blog piece not only produced a response from someone I did not know, it appeared right away. The writer identified herself as Pat, told me she lived back East and said she was retired from 35 years of teaching high school biology and anatomy. Pat mentioned she had been divorced for fourteen years, after a 28-year-long marriage, and if I wanted to communicate with her, I should hit her up with an email. 


I was surprised to get any response, and my reaction was automatic. I wrote a brief, ten thousand word summary of myself, for the simple reason that Pat had reached out to me and I was lonely.


What struck me immediately were the similarities between us. We were only a year apart in age, both retired teachers, both single and both on the same page politically. Additionally, both of us had bought a piece of property and either built or had built, a multi-storied home on a mountain.


Ironically, at precisely the same time that Patti and I were getting acquainted, the pandemic surfaced. I posted my blog piece on March 10th; the NBA shelved its season on the 12th, and Patti’s initial response came the following day. As the rest of the world was required to push away, Patti and I drew together.


My sorrow never vacated the premises, so much as that icy feeling of loss began to defrost in the warmth of a friend, newly gained. Just as winter evolved into spring, my own outlook on life took on a rejuvenated approach, as my friendship with Patti allowed me to know that the worst was over. I knew the worst was over because the icepick had been removed from my heart.


I would never forget Annie, but I had clawed my way back out of the abyss, thanks to Patti. From the beginning of our correspondence, we established that neither of us was capable of pulling up roots and relocating, and I had made it clear that I was not interested in doing the casual approach to any relationship. 


But I also made it clear to Patti that I valued our friendship beyond measure for the simple reason that I was back on flat land and squarely on my feet. I knew this because the memories of Annie that permeated my existence, no longer brought me the pain of separation but, rather, the joy of the decades we spent together. 


This paradigm shift allowed me to hurtle myself into all of those endeavors I prattled on about a few days ago, in “Bozos on the Bus.”


(https://markyswrite.blogspot.com/2021/03/bozos-on-bus.html)


I was capable of doing this because Patti reached out to me and accomplished what no one else did, and I can never forget that. I shall cherish our friendship always.










Tuesday, March 16, 2021

"Bozos on The Bus"

When a boxer goes down, he has two choices: stay down or get back up and keep on fighting. Life knocked me down a year ago January, when I lost Annie. Back the truck up-I did not lose Annie; Annie passed away of renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer). I could never have “lost Annie.”

I did, however, recognize that I had the same two choices any living person has: I could repair to my lair and blaze away without care, or I could claw my way back to my feet and move forward. I chose the latter and hit the ground running. Rather artfully I managed to combine the two, marching forth while blazing away. 


The reason I could do this is simple. I got to spend almost forty years with the most beautiful woman I ever met. To be salty because our time together was not longer, is an affront to the cosmos. I have a vast array of memories of Annie, but instead of being saddened by these memories, I am uplifted by them. They serve as rays of light in the darkest of moments.


Also serving as a beacon of light for me is and has been Ollie Mac, my grandson who is almost three. I am unconditionally available, so he visits me most days for a couple of hours or so. Nothing in my life gives me greater joy or satisfaction than interacting with this child. Nothing.


In constructing a quilt of this past year's activities, I would need many squares. Through chance or otherwise, I have assembled a quilt crowded with a tale of farm life on a mountain. That I required many squares is mute testimony that I was trying to live up to the quilt-making standards of herself. As the year unfolded, I plunged into the following endeavors:


In early February, two weeks after Annie slipped away, I began construction on the deck alongside the kitchen, to replace the one demolished by cascading snow off of the roof. I worked to get the multi-leveled deck done as quickly as I could, weather and a cranky left shoulder permitting. 


In late April I began cooking lunch for the HappyDayFarms staff, Monday through Friday, with a dozen Saturdays tossed in there. I cooked for between five and seven farm personnel almost until Thanksgiving Day. I had a streak of more than a hundred consecutive weekday lunches prepared, when forced evacuation from deadly summer wildfires interrupted that run.


Last May, my sister JT gifted me with a set of watercolor paints, a wide assortment of brushes and a thick pad of watercolor paper, with which to experiment (and experience). She also included a set of acrylic paints which remain unopened. 


I have never been able to draw or sketch in my life, always having considered myself a stick-figure kind of artist. Upon receiving the paint set, I corresponded with JT because she has been painting for as long as I can remember. In gleaning valuable nuggets of information, none was more telling than her statement about talent versus hard work. 


JT told me that no one is born with the ability to sketch accurately; it is an acquired skill. Some people are able to draw easier than others but if you want to create realistic images, you need to practice the same drawing until it looks the way you want. 


And she was right. I never thought I could draw because every time I tried, my drawings looked like those of a second grader. Then I tried drawing the same object fifty times-or whatever it took, working on specific elements of the sketch each time. I proved JT correct early on by painting a portrait of Casey that was clearly recognizable as Casey. 


In my own mind, I continue to exceed my highest expectations. This is not to say that what I create has any resemblance to true art; it is to say I am pleased with most of what I paint. I would have liked Annie to see this side of me emerge, but who knows? I may only have started painting in the first place, as a means of coping with her loss. 


I did my first painting, one of a heart, on what would have been Annie’s 64th birthday.


As for that running game, at some point last spring, I began baking gluten-free, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies for the HappyDayFarms farm-stand. We are located five miles up Bell Springs Road and opened in April, at pretty much the same time that I started cooking for the staff. I baked cookies twice a week until I got organized enough to knock out a double/double batch, or four single batches simultaneously. That way I only had to marathon-bake once a week.


Beginning in mid-summer I processed around forty cases of zucchini relish, tomatoes and apples, not finishing up until December. I did pints and quarts of cold- pack tomatoes; pints and quarts of oven-roasted, hot-pack tomatoes, including Ace, cordon bleu and German-striped, heirloom tomatoes; half-pints and pints of tomato/jalapeño salsa; half-pints and pints of jalapeño/tomato hot sauce; quarts and pints of marinara sauce; half-pints and pints of catsup; and half-pints of pizza sauce.


I canned about two cases of applesauce from our orchard-grown Fuji apples, and a case of pints of chopped up black Arkansas apples, ready-made for pies and cakes. Almost all the applesauce is gone because Ollie Mac loves it, as he does apples.


As if I did not have enough on my plate, in late July I began working on an enclosed front porch. It runs the sixteen feet across the front of my kitchen and has an upstairs, screened-in-porch room, for sleeping at night during those dog days of August. 


As the weather warms up this spring, should we so choose, the farm staff could comfortably eat lunch in this porch. Regardless, right now when it is twenty-five degrees outside, the porch provides excellent insulation. It will be the same this summer, when it is ninety degrees outside, with the porch serving as a buffer from the heat. 


I also constructed a hand railing around the aforementioned deck, along with a bench and steps leading down from the side of the deck. This is the part of the project that I enjoyed the most, primarily because there was no timeframe attached.


Topping off my list of hitting the ground running, despite the worldwide pandemic, I renewed what had been a casual friendship with Denise, a resilient and delightful woman who walked across the same high school graduation stage that I did. Our friendship has blossomed into closeness and though she lives six hundred miles away, she makes our relationship happen by journeying back and forth from Westminster, in Orange County.


One difference between Denise and me, is that I choose to complicate my life to the extent that I have multiple responsibilities connected to others. In-season I cook for farm staff with a rigid time frame, and I clean up afterwards. On an almost daily basis, I get to interact with Ollie Mac. I process fruit and veggies from the farm, coordinating on times with Casey, and I bake for the farm-stand as needed, communicating with Casey or Amber. 


I also paint, write, clean house, work on my building project, haul firewood for the wood stoves, tend Annie’s chickens, care for my dogs and struggle to get six hours of sleep out of every twenty-four.


Do I drive myself because Annie passed? Or do I drive myself in spite of it? Or am I just one of Firesign Theater’s Bozos, plopped on this bus of life, making my rounds, doing my thing, while waiting until I get to the end of the line?






Saturday, March 13, 2021

Slide-Dancing

 Going from sand and surf to snow and ice is one thing, driving in snow and ice is quite another. Having barely escaped Snowpocalypse, January 26th, by flying out of Santa Rosa just as the big storm was slamming into the mountain, Denise and I were not as fortunate this time around. The snow arrived first and then Denise.

We had scheduled this visit at least a month ago, and I had been monitoring the weather forecasts closely all week. The outlook was not brilliant but whenever Dee asked about snow, I evaded her question(s). “The situation is under control,” I repeated assuringly.


The difference between the snow storm that hit on January 26th and the storm that just passed through is significant. Both dumped snow at a furious pace, but this latter storm featured gaps between snow showers, during which much of the snow that fell on the road melted. 


Even if it piled up most everywhere else, there was enough traffic and warmer air between cloudbursts, to keep Bell Springs Road drivable. There are always a few stretches where the snow builds up and you are driving on ice for a hundred yards or so, slowly, but mostly you are down to dirt and gravel. 


As Tuesday arrived, the forecast was for seven inches of snow, on top of what had been falling for two days. The Bell was almost free of snow as Denise took off from Orange County and headed up to Santa Rosa, around four. Even as I texted her the good news, I couldn’t help note the snow falling heavily outside. It had been snowing for a while but if The Bell was clear, no problem.


At 5:30 I hit my son Lito up with a text telling him that we would need to implement our plan of meeting Denise at the bottom of The Bell, where it meets the highway. I texted Denise the same message and asked her to let me know when she was passing through Willits, an hour away from us.


When I got that message, I relayed it to Lito and he said he would leave right away to come get me. The snow had been dumping for three hours now, with more or less three inches on the dirt road, along with those few stretches where it was considerably deeper. On the flip side, Lito was driving the new-to-the-farm 'Yoda Tundra, a vehicle already having proven its worth during Snowpocalype. 


Lito and I agreed we would check out the tires on Denise’s all-wheel-drive vehicle to make sure they could handle snow and ice. We were heading uphill for the first three miles of Bell Springs Road, something that is not conducive to driving in icy conditions without chains.


All went according to plan, as we met Denise almost at the bottom of The Bell, and I took over driving for her. Lito and I did inspect the tires up at Orange-Marker Road, and agreed there wasn’t much to be done but carry on. For the most part the drive up to my turnoff was marginally acceptable, with maybe a half-dozen times when we did a little slide-dancing on the ice. 


We parted ways at Lito’s driveway, only a couple minutes shy of our own, and proceeded to the top of the turnoff without any issues. As I was poised at the precipice of our steep driveway, peering blindly out into the cascading snow, I had a sudden thought. It was not a particularly good one, and sure enough, as we crested the driveway and started sliding down, with no control whatsoever, I realized it was too late to text Houston.


When we finally ground to a complete halt, we weren’t exactly ninety degrees’ worth of sideways, but I had to crane my neck to the left to see the driveway. Visions of Lito having to trot the tractor over to get us out, were scampering through my pea brain, as I went into my act. 


I had known instinctively to turn the steering wheel the opposite of what I might have thought while we were free-falling, so the tires were at least pointed in the right direction when we slid to a halt. In my experience these matters are generally resolved immediately, or it’s call-for-the-tractor time, and this was no exception. 


I put her in reverse, needing no more than a foot or two to ease my way back on-track, and the cosmos granted me that favor. As we slipped/slid our way down the hundred yards of steep driveway, I could see a flashlight gleaming down at Casey’s spot.


Afterwards when I asked him if he knew we were in trouble, he responded, “I saw your lights and thought someone was at the top of the driveway. Then I remembered I couldn’t see the top of the driveway from where I was standing,” he finished, laughing.


The fruits of our labor:
Denise and Ollie Mac

Honestly, by all rights, that SUV should still have been up at the top of the driveway, bogged down in the snow. What universe allows a vehicle with city tires and no chains, to back up and maneuver back onto the road, in the middle of a blinding snow storm?


My answer is a benevolent universe where love is the greatest power. That’s the best I can do and I’m sticking with it.