Friday, December 31, 2010

Books on Horseback

Bo was gracious enough to stand still--even though Stewie was stalking him--as I describe my books to viewers here. It's not often that my horse is calm, I look good, and Edgar is free to videotape my riding, so, this morning I decided at the spur of the moment to tape this video for my author page on

Unlike Obama, I have no handy teleprompter--that's why a couple of "aah's" and "uh's." But, considering that I decided to do the video at the last minute and without any preparation, it's not too bad. What you see is what you get; it's always that way with me. Thanks for watching and listening. And check out my books at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I've made a New Year's resolution to vigorously promote the books I have out there in order to reinvigorate my platform. And over the year I've made promises to reader fans that another book would be coming out soon. With the economy appearing to surge, I'm hoping my animal books will, too, and that readers will have their fill of my writing. I've got three mss. ready, everyone! Thanks for all your support through 2010, and I hope everyone has a healthy and happy new year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thankful for Animals

Imagine a world without animals, be it without pets, livestock, or wildlife. How would we comparatively dull humans entertain ourselves?
I like going to sleep knowing that my pets are safe, warm, and cozy in their barn stalls and that they will be well-rested the next day to make me laugh and to cuddle alongside me. Likewise, I know that while I sleep, the raccoons are just awakening and stepping outside their holes for a night of play, hunting, and general ruckus. I think about the fact that while we sleep, on the other side of the world in Africa and India, rare wild beasts--ones I'll never see in my lifetime--are emerging from their dens, nests, and coral holes from where they will announce the morning and begin their day hunting food and guarding their young.
Without animals, we would all wake up, not to the singing and chirping of the birds, but to tree branches quaking, squeaking eerily in the wind. And the movement of the trees would be the only activity catching our attention. I can't imagine waking up without seeing the squirrels chasing each other, leaping from one branch to another. Mornings would resemble death where nothing but silence reigned?
I often imagine the wild places on Earth, devoid of human control--merely under the auspices and dominance of animals--in places so remote that hardly a human intrudes on the natural setting. Without humans shaping all to serve their needs, the wild and the animals within such a world must prosper, without fear of slaughter or the hunt. Though the prey-predator relationship exists, a world without human interlopers is ideal; it it natural.
This Christmas I am grateful to know that animals are a part of my world--whether or not that world is unseen by me or other people. Of course, my own pets have made me who I am--have formed my honest personality. My horses carry me, mostly willingly, for rides around the farm and to a few parks, and I appreciate that, too. My pigs I love because they are determined to do things they feel are important, regardless of my needs. Pigs can divorce themselves from the human condition, and for that I admire them.
This Christmas we should all be thankful for our pets who love us unconditionally and for the wildlife that entertain in much more subtle ways. Life is good because of our pets and the life flitting, scampering, and calling beyond our windows. They are our most valuable gifts this Christmas season.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Stew Master

Stewie is now thirteen weeks old and forty pounds. Named after Stewie Gilligan Griffin of "Family Guy's" precocious baby, Stewie the dog hardly resembles the football-headed cartoon infant. About the only thing the two have in common is that they pee and poop themselves at the drop of a glove.
I have to admit that he's a pretty nice dog, but he's already a bit spoiled, having all kinds of stuffed toys, a Weatherbetta dog coat, big smoked bones, treats, and a lot of loving. If only all dogs could end up with nice homes--the world would be so much warmer, more civilized. The human world, after all, defines itself, really, by the manner in which it treats creatures it considers beneath it. What a fine place ours would be if everyone extended charity and kindness to the animals. In such a world no cats, horses, or pot-bellies would suffer, and neither would the wildlife.
This afternoon I bought Stewie a big cow bone (sorry, vegans), and I brought his big dog bed into the kitchen while I put away the rest of the groceries. Well, as you all can see in the video, I have my right hand in a half cast after having a re-fix on a carpal tunnel surgery that scarred down. This time I didn't paint the downstairs bathroom a week after surgery; instead, I'm taking care of this hand and only doing the exercises I'm supposed to do.
So, fishing around in the cabinet above the refrigerator trying to get a box of quart-sized freezer bags, I used a tongs to grasp the box because my right hand is "off." All of a sudden this heavy tray came flying out of the cabinet. I ducked, but the tray crashed onto poor Stewie, who, for a change, was minding his own business, intent on his boney. A high-pitched yelp pierced the air, and out he ran, me on his heels apologizing profusely.
He darted into his crate, his right leg raised, and the look he was giving me was one of pure remorse.
"No, no, Stewie," I said, reaching into the cage. "You didn't do anything wrong. I'm so sorry. Mommy has a bum hand right now. Come here, and let me see your leg." Slowly he emerged from the crate. He avoided looking at me. Poor thing--probably thought he was being punished for chewing what he thought was his own bone. Believe me--we haven't used corporal punishment on him, but he had to have thought he committed a crime of colossal canine crapola.
I quickly summoned Edgar to check his leg, biting my fingernails through the examination. He pronounced him just fine, and I sighed relief.
This evening Stewie's back to chewing on his boney in the living room.
I like Stewie because he's rather quiet for a puppy. I especially like that he doesn't jump on us. And he hasn't sniffed my crotch yet, which is always a good quality in a dog. He runs beside me around the woods and is being fairly kind to the barn cats and the pigs as they roam through their days. He's just a pleasant fellow, and we really like him.
As usual I don't simply call him "Stewie." His other nicknames include "Gooey Stewie, " "Stew Master," Stew Man," and "Stew Bird." And when he pees on the floor, he's "Dammit Stewie!",

Monday, December 6, 2010

Buttons and Thread Tell a Story

A few days ago I decided to de-clutter the extra bedroom that serves as my craft, gift-wrapping, and art room. I was trashing anything I hadn’t used in the past two years: oodles of fake rose buds and plastic vases I used for the graduation party for my Ph. D. Then I tossed a box full of leftover pieces of fabric for sewing my own dresses (yeah—do you believe that?), and I threw out some out-dated violin lesson books. Likewise, a movie projector and screen went to the dumpster as well as a bunch of ancient medicines and vitamin bottles.
Only a few hundred boxes remained for sifting when I discovered an older, medium-sized box. Inside, amongst a bunch of multi-colored spools of thread sat a small rectangular box. I opened it and gasped. It was a box of buttons—all different kinds—sitting amongst the thread: all from one of my Grandma Eckensberger’s dress factories. Forty-year-old buttons nestled amongst forty-year-old thread. A tear dribbled down my cheek: it was my Gramma who taught me how to sew.
The box of buttons and thread, uncannily, still had the odor distinctive of Grandma’s factories in Allentown, Pennsylvana—a smelly mélange of rolls and rolls of fabric, piles of lint, puddles of sewing machine oil, and clouds of steam from the pressing machines. The box oozed the essence of my childhood because I worked in my Grandma’s dress factory from the age of fourteen, along with all the women who ran the single-needle and merrow machines, the button fasteners, and the pressers, to the age of 21. I mastered a myriad of jobs, first as a finishing girl, one who trimmed the extra strings from the dresses. Then, after I proved my responsibility as a trim girl, I pinned the size and designer tags on the dresses along with bagging each in plastic. By the time I was 21 years old, I was an expert at the single-needle machine, which I learned to “drive” at the age of sixteen.
At that time my grandmother sat me down at one of the single-needle machines and showed me how to thread and untangle a clog of “cotton” under the foot plate. When she pressed the foot-pedal, the machine roared into action, the needle a mere blur as she expertly slid a long piece of fabric under the foot. Those factory sewing machines were monsters: tough, frenetic devourers of fabric and thread, monstrosities with insatiable appetites. The first time I stepped on the foot pedal that drove the needle, I thought it was going to suck my hand right with it, so fast it went. It was frightening for this teenager, but I’d be damned if it’d get the better of me.
But it did: twice. Two times I sewed my left thumb. And when the needle slammed into the bone of the digit, and the machine ground abruptly to a halt, I sat there, eyes wide: no pain--only shock and disbelief. My thumb sat there like a disembodied thing--skewered upon the needle. The lady at the machine next to me heard the loud “thuck!” and knew I had sewn my thumb. “Don’t move!” she warned. “Just take the wheel with you other hand and raise the needle out of your thumb.” And, at the age of sixteen, that’s exactly what I did—very deliberately, very carefully. Then, staring at the hole in my hand, I got up and went to the office for a band aid. I did finish working that day, even though by day’s end, my thumb was thumping.
I worked in my grandmother’s dress factory every summer through my college years. The women asked to start by seven in the morning so that they could be out of the building and in their gardens by three in the afternoon. These ladies were not much different from me—some needed the money for extras, some to live. I needed the job for extra cash and as a reminder. Much as I complained some days, my father always said, “Keep at it—you’ll appreciate your college education even more.” And I did: I didn’t want to be forever sitting in front of a machine for eight hours a day in a building where the fluorescent lights hummed drearily overhead. It wasn’t hard work; it was just endlessly boring.
And as much as the work was tiresome, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the women. They talked and sang to the radios blaring as the machines around them buzzed and roared—pulling, chewing the fabric through--gathering, stitching pieces together, basting, and hemming yards and yards of fabric. The women laughed and told jokes, sucking lifesavers and chewing gum as they directed the cloth beneath the needles. I remember having the utmost respect for the zipper setters. Most everyone was on piece-rate: the more pieces you did, the more money you made. But the zipper setters were the queens of the factory—could set a full zipper into a dress in less than three minutes. They did it perfectly. A zipper setter was considered an expert seamstress and made a good buck in the process.
These women weren’t simply workers to my grandmother. They were “her girls” as she often referred to them. She bought them sodas at lunch, and they brought her gifts from their kitchens. Gramma often joked and worked on the machines alongside them when one called in sick. She wasn’t simply their employer; she was their friend and partner in the skill of manufacturing beautiful clothing. At the end of the day after everyone had punched out, I would wait with Gramma until the truck came to take the day’s dresses to New York. And, finally, we got into the car and went home.

I looked at the buttons and spools of thread again. I stirred the buttons with my index finger: plain buttons, ones with crystal centers, metal ones. Once again the aroma of Gramma’s dress factory wafted into the air—even after forty years of storage.
And I wiped away another tear. Gramma was dead--since 1984. And it almost seemed that with her died the dress factories, too. Their skeletal remains are intact all over town: the empty factories sit vacant where once they had housed thriving dress factories. Over the years, our government and private enterprise have sent most factory jobs and others overseas--mostly to avoid the high cost of labor unions. I know from several conversations I had had with Gramma that the unions had drained her almost poor. And even though, years ago, I belonged to a teacher’s union, I felt strong-armed into joining. If a teacher didn’t belong, the union and its members ostracized him or her.
The buttons and thread spoke to me: What had happened to industrial America? Where were the factory jobs that anyone—high schoolers, college kids, middle-class men and women—could get thirty or forty years ago? Where had they all gone? And what part of the American soul had they taken with them? Today, workers hardly take pride in their work. So many don’t care; they just want to make the most money while expending the least amount of effort in the shortest time. And pride in one’s work is extinct, as well.
And what of the products we buy today? We know that stuff made in China is often of poor quality. We covet items—rare ones—that say, “Made in the USA.” Where have all the factories gone? And will we ever get back those jobs that embody the American work ethic and pride? The unions put the factories out of business, and by doing that, they put America out of business.

My Gramma was not rich, even though she owned several dress factories in her lifetime. She was a business woman, a hard worker, as were her “girls.” “Her girls” were the best ones in all the shops in Allentown, and she loved “her girls.”
I whisked away another tear as I stashed the box of buttons alongside the thread and put them on a high shelf. I would keep these—in remembrance—of Gramma and of America.

Make Your Own Bird Suet

We all take special care of our cats, dogs, bird, horses, and pot-bellies during the winter months. Freezing temps and lack of running water and plentiful food, however, is hard on wildlife as well. People like to feed the birds, but who wants to spend tons of money on these suet cakes? Well, you can make your own cakes--all at one time--ones that'll last you for most of the winter. It's easy!

Ingredients: big can of Crisco or lard; big can of cheap peanut butter (preferably crunchy style); medium-sized bag of corn meal (at grocery store in baking section); large bag of bird seed with sunflower seeds included; saran wrap; and freezer bag.

Put equal amounts of Crisco or lard and peanut butter (you don't need to measure--just guestimate) in a huge pot. Add a whole lot of seed and mix those three ingredients. Next, pour in corn meal until the whole thing stirs fairly hard. See if you can form a square without your fingers sticking to the whole mess. When the mess stirs and sounds gritty and has become stiffer, you're finished. Add more corn meal if when you try to make a cake, it really sticks to your fingers. It will, ultimately, be sticky, but you can flour or coat your fingers in corn meal to prevent a big mess.

Making the suet patties: On your kitchen counter tear out a bunch small sheets of saran wrap. Take a few spoonfuls and mold the stuff into a square. Then place the square on a plate and pour more corn meal over it, turning it around so that there's corn meal on each side and the edges. Fold up the saran wrap around it.

Form all the patties, wrap them up, and store in freezer in a gallon freezer bag. If you have a suet holder from a store, just reuse that. Or, you can simply put the suet in a crack of a tree, on a branch, or on a stump--if you don't have dogs. The simplest is to first purchase a regular suet square from a Home Depot and use the wire container for your homemade suet.

You'll have many hours of enjoyment watching the birds eating your own suet cakes, and you'll feel better knowing you're helping the wildlife stay warm while you are saving money at the same time. And the birds love this homemade recipe much more than the store-bought stuff.