Archive for the 'Community' Category

The Balls of Bothell II

One of my early posts was called The Balls of Bothell. The Balls, Darl and Jeannine, lived for many many years on a curve of the busy road that runs around the north end of Lake Washington. I never met them, but like thousands or even millions of people traveling on Wasthington State Route 522 (called Bothell Way on that stretch), my wife and I had become familiar and even attached to their wooden sign, which we looked for and verbally celebrated every time we came around the curve in the highway where we knew it waited to announce their habitation at that place. It said “The Balls of Bothell” in big gold letters, and then in smaller letters beneath that it said “Darl and Jeannine”.

The sign hung from a post at the bottom of the Balls’ driveway. It was there for ages and then one day it was gone. I wrote a blog post about the sign and about our experience of the sign, and wondered what kind of people the Balls were and whether they were aware of how time and the increase in traffic on that once quiet country road had rendered strange such an exuberantly personal and inviting sign. (You know me…just wondering.) I didn’t have a photo of the sign to go with that post, and at the time I had no reason to think I’d ever see it again.

I think the Balls' sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then.

I think the Balls’ sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then. The curve is known locally as Wayne Curve.

If you go to that post and read through the comments that readers posted, you’ll see that old Darl himself eventually got wind of my post and logged in to give a shout out to all his fans, reporting that he still had the old sign and the sad news that Jeannine had passed on a few years earlier. I made a mental note to track him down and ask him if I could come look at the old board and take some photos of it, but I never got around to doing it.

Darl Ball, 1926 - 2013

Darl Ball, 1926 – 2013

Then Darl died, a fact I learned in those same comments when his relatives and friends started turning up and leaving little eulogies to him and Jeannine. One of those people was Darl’s nephew, Bradley Mitchell, who goes by Mitch and in conversation calls his uncle simply “Ball”. Mitch commented to let me know the sign had come to him and that if I wanted to see it I should come over to his home in Kirkland soon, because he was preparing to ship the sign to some relatives out of state who had the Ball surname.

I visited Mitch this past June. He is an interesting character in his own right, having himself many times been the subject of magazine and newspaper articles and television segments because of his large collection of deep sea diving gear and other marine equipment, many specimens of which fill his home. In the relatively small world of deep sea diving gear hobbyists, I’m sure his is a household name. But he clearly lives in a state of constant and enduring admiration of the man he calls simply “Ball,” and while he commented with very few words about anything related to his own celebrity, he was fairly verbose about his uncle’s life and times, and had dragged out for my perusal numerous photos and several paper artifacts from his uncle’s days in the Merchant Marine (Certificate of Efficiency to Lifeboat Man, serial number B71663; Certificate of Service to Able Seaman, serial number A120679; and a temporary American passport issued by the American consul at the East African port city then known as Laurenço de Marques, now Maputo in the People’s Republic of Mozambique).

Young Darl and his Merchant Marine buddies.

Young Darl (far left) and his Merchant Marine buddies.

I took several photos of the photographs he laid out. I spent an hour with him during which he said a lot of things that I did not write down and which I cannot now remember. I do recall him noting several times that Ball joined the Merchant Marine even though he couldn’t swim a stroke. That single fact seemed to represent the very gizzard of the man for Mitch. He also told me, something that may be of interest to history, that his was the third sign the Balls hung, that two others had been stolen over the years. I can’t remember if he said the earlier ones were smaller or larger, but I think they were not all of the same dimensions. It’s my opinion that when the stolen ones eventually turn up in some garage or at a flea market, they should be given to the City of Bothell for museum pieces.

You can read about Mitch in this April 7, 2007 Seattle Times article, and if you catch up with Mitch you can ask him all about his Uncle Darl, how the man went to Texas or someplace to buy a large piece of construction equipment — a crane, I think — and drove the thing all the way back to Seattle to use in the landscape business he’d started after the war. I would have liked to be able to relate more of what Mitch told me about him, since I had openly wondered about the Balls in my earlier post, but it wasn’t the right time and I was not on my reporter game.

Nevertheless, my main purpose was fulfilled; I got to see the sign again, which was much larger than I had remembered. And because I know there are so many out there who remember it fondly, I provide a couple of pictures of it herebelow, with thanks to Bradley Mitchell for letting me take them and use them.

Mitch Bradley.

Mitch.

Sign Number Three.

Sign Number Three.

Update 29 May 2014: This story never seems to come to an end. People keep commenting on the original Balls of Bothell post. Someone commented today, actually a comment addressed to Mitch (shown above) not to me. But it got me curious, so I did some googling and found a Bothell Reporter obituary for Jeannine that included a small photo of her, which I include herebelow. I don’t have any rights to the material, but I’m claiming “educational purposes”. I thought people might like to see a photo of one of the principles in this strangely ongoing tale. There’s also a Facebook page called “You know you’re from Bothell if…”, where the facilitator posted one of the above photos of the sign, and the comments it drew are very interesting and enlightening. One old Bothellian recalls that a photo of the sign made an appearance on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show or David Letterman’s Late Night. Also, almost unbelievably, the first “Balls” sign was made by a person named Cox.

Jeannine Ball

Jeannine Ball

Jeannine Ball, 81, passed away quietly in her sleep on Tuesday, September 22, 2010 surrounded by those she loved. Those who loved her know her long battle with illness is over and she is at peace. Jeannine will be remembered for her loving spirit, caring nature, and bright sparkling eyes. A friend to all, she lived in the Bothell area for nearly 40 years. She was an avid gardener who loved her roses and dahlias along with the birds and wildlife they attracted. Jeannine’s indomitable spirit and never-ending sense of humor were an inspiration to all. She leaves behind three daughters, Bobbie Metters, Debbie Rayburn (Buck) and Charnell Morud (Doug) and six grandchildren: Jayson, Katherine, Charles, Tessa, Carey, and Evan. Sisters Jorgia Irish, Sandra Winterburn (Victor) and their families, as well as former husband and friend, Darl Ball, are with her in spirit. All will miss her dearly but rejoice in having shared her life. Jeannine knew the true meaning of love. Her legacy is that she shared so much of that love with her family, friends and everyone she encountered. Services were held Thursday, September 30 at Purdy & Walters at Floral Hills in Lynnwood. To view the everlasting memorial visit http://www.dignitymemorial.com. Remembrances may be made to Meals on Wheels or other services for seniors.
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Following the obituary’s trail, I also found her archived remembrance page on the Dignity Memorial website, where a gallery preserves several dozen pictures of Jeannine taken throughout her life, from childhood to her last days. One of them — and again, I have no rights to it so tell me if it is yours and you don’t want it up here — is this wonderful image:

The infamous pair and their infamous sign. Oh the glee!

The infamous pair and their infamous sign. Oh the glee!

Jubilee Farm

When we drove up and parked at Jubilee Farm a crowd was gathering around the top of a little grassy hill, and I could see Erick Haakenson directing adults and children in what I at first thought was a giant tug-of-war game, folks lined up ready to pull on a rope. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war game. They were cocking a trebuchet. A trebuchet is a cousin of the catapult but instead of a winch a trebuchet has a weighted beam. You lift the weight and hold it in place with a pin. Pull the pin, and whatever you loaded into the basket attached to the unweighted beam-end gets flung out into the adjacent pasture, in this case a large pumpkin.

Arriving at Jubilee Farm. If you click for the larger version you can see the line of people about to pick up the rope.

Locked, cocked and ready to fling. Erick stands at far left on the hill while the three pullers pull.

Erick moved everyone except for three adult volunteers off the hill, for safety’s sake, and then the relocated assembly shouted a countdown from ten, at the end of which the volunteers pulled on the rope that held the pin, the pin came out, the 2,000-pound weight dropped, the beam rotated, and the pumpkin joined that relatively small fraternity of gourd vegetables that have been privileged to leave earth’s bonds momentarily behind, lifted into the blue sky above the tops of fir trees. It landed and exploded in a thud of yellow and orange, and all the children ran out to examine it.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm occupies 200 acres at a sharp bend in the Snoqualmie River, near the town of Carnation. It’s a small farm owned and run by Erick and his wife Wendy. They raise vegetables and keep some livestock, mainly for the manure, and the farm is supported by a CSA program, wherein townies who wish to know where their food comes from and have a relationship with its grower pay an annual fee and receive weekly boxes of the farm’s produce in return.

It’s a princess patch.

I met Erick years ago at the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair. He had a table set up with a few apples and other fruits and some vegetables on it, but he said he wasn’t really there to sell produce that day so much as talk with people about biodynamic farming, which is his passion. Biodynamic farming seeks to restore and maintain ecological balance, so, for example, instead of adding chemical fertilizers to the soil, BD farmers might use manure from cattle, returning nutrient to the soil from right there on the farm instead of importing something external. Basically, it’s farming in harmony with instead of in opposition to the processes of nature. But there’s also a huge emphasis on community in the BD movement, since the approach is based on a holistic idea of the health of the land.

Shortly after this encounter, we took Mara, who was then two years old, to Jubilee Farm to hunt down a pumpkin for Halloween. We climbed into a wagon for a free hayride around the edges of fields full of broccoli and squash and carrots and chard and onions and cabbage, and just before the tractor started to pull the wagon Erick himself jumped up into the wagon so he could ride with us and tell us how things were going that year. As we skirted the fields he shouted above the sound of the tractor to report that it had been a good year for some things but not for others. He talked about wanting to eventually get his tractors off of diesel and onto biofuels, in keeping with the biodynamic model.

I was entranced.

The man was singing my song, namely the song of can’t we just quit bashing the earth we’ve been given for our home and sustenance in order to make bigger profits and start being responsible stewards and reckon the health of our soil and our communities as a bottom line asset?

Silas explains one of his ideas to Mara. He has already proposed marriage and they talk a lot about the house they will build together.

We started planning how we might participate in Jubilee’s CSA program, which was not outrageously expensive but would amount to a rerouting of our food budget that would take some planning and experimentation and education for us to make work for us. Like how do you make a meal out of kohlrabi? And what the hell is kohlrabi? But that’s when we finally moved out of our tiny 1912 cottage-y house into our big swingin’ 1960s plate-glass windows and a two-car garage house (we don’t have two cars), and for several years we were burdened with a monthly mortgage that forced us to retreat from the expensive moral high ground where our food was concerned.

We never joined, and what’s more, we began getting our pumpkins at another farm up north every year with friends of ours who went there, whose daughter is Mara’s oldest friend. I’ve written about our annual trip to Craven Farm at least twice before, and we’ve had fun there. It’s a big operation and a well-oiled commercial enterprise, complete with tractor-pulled hayride through a corn-maze (not free), some small farm animals in a petting barn, a concession stand with a play-and-eating area, even a permanent espresso bar and a gift shop. We’ve been to weddings and other events at Craven Farm. It always seems to be stunningly beautiful there, tranquil and magical and…the word ‘shimmering’ comes to mind, and they have vast pumpkin patches, and a separate patch with smaller pumpkins for littler people. Even though you don’t necessarily feel the farmingness of it, there’s nothing not to like there.

Millie became rather attached to her tractor.

But for a number of reasons we decided to go back to Jubilee Farm this year. Even though we’d only been once before, a long time ago, we had been missing it. Or at least Angela and I had. Mara didn’t remember it. But she was game, especially since her buddy Silas and his mom said they’d go with us, and Millie at just two and a half years probably doesn’t even remember Craven Farm, so she was untroubled by the change.

When I saw Erick conducting the trebuchet firing I was immediately glad we had come back. It occurred to me that Erick is always outside talking with people, or driving the tractors, or helping people weigh their pumpkins. I love that. Whereas Craven Farm is big and smooth and feels a bit like going to a fair, like a place eternally at ease, the feeling at Jubilee is more like going to a holiday gathering at your favorite uncle’s farm. Erick and Wendy are always participating, engaging the people who support them not just by being customers, as Erick said, but by being part of the community that the farm operates in. This is a farm with a family at the center of it, and the families that visit it during weekends like this are often families that have worked in Jubilee’s fields in a “workshare” capacity. They know Erick and Wendy and Erick and Wendy know them. At Jubilee Farm, you get a whiff of the realness, the danger, the dependence on the weather and on the community of friends, the skin-of-their-teeth determination that keeps Erick and his family in the game.

Getting our gourd on. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

We caught a hayride out to the pumpkin patch and Silas and Mara had a blast running around and assessing the features that in their minds make up the ideal jack-o-lantern. There weren’t pumpkins small enough for Millie to pick up in the field, but she found a tiny one she coveted later at the cashier’s counter. The wagon picked us up with our chosen pumpkins to take us back to the barn. All three kids enjoyed a large haybale maze in one of the sheds, and Millie twice climbed up unaided into an old International tractor, whose gear levers she seemed to intuitively understand. We had gotten there late and things were closing down. It had been a beautiful day, even hot, which I think surprised everyone. There was hot cider and hot corn on the cob for sale on the barn porch, but we bought popsicles out of a freezer.

Erick’s son David conducted an end-of-day pumpkin fling with the trebuchet, and the dwindling crowd again pulled the rope to lift the 2,000-pound block. This time I shot my hand up when volunteers were called for to pull the pin. It took me and the man and woman with me three pulls with all our might before it came out. I fell to the ground. The pumpkin arced through the sky. The children ran after. It was great to be part of the fun.

David Haakenson readies the trebuchet for another fling.

Silas and his mom had to leave, but Angela and the girls and I took a stroll down the long road across the highway — Angela had asked Erick where the cows were that we kept hearing. A quarter mile down the road the cows were in a pasture picking at what little green there was in the grass after the long drought we’ve had since late July or so. Angela and Mara fed them over the electric fence. If I understand correctly these animals are the engine of soil replenishment for Jubilee’s crop fields. Most of the calves were black — all black, even their faces. The cows were mostly black or black with white faces, though some were a dirty white and one or two were brown.

It was cool in the shadow of Tolt Hill, and a little mist was even coming up, even while the lowering sun was still painting the treetops across the valley. The quiet between the lowing of the cows was soul-enriching. David came walking down the road to check that the fence was on. With him was his wife Kristin, who was carrying their baby son Micah in her arms. He pointed to the new barn being built across the fields, and told us that the cows were being so vocal partly because they were unhappy about the lack of green grass. He said they were moving the herd every 24 hours in an effort to make the fields provide enough nutrient to keep them fed until November, when they’ll go into the new barn for the winter (in the barn, I happen to know, they’ll get good hay that was put up at the end of the summer – dry but tasty).

Millie in the shade of the barn. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Silas and Mara enter the haybale maze. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Angela and I missed the tradition of doing Craven Farm with our old friends, but this feeling was more than mitigated by the fun we had discovering new adventures with new friends. Mara had not uttered a single word of discontent (she was happily capering with Silas). Jubilee’s patch was not as large nor as plentiful as Craven’s, and there were no wheelbarrows to stick your toddler in when they tired of tripping around among the pokey vines and stems. Sending us off in our haywagon, Erick had acknowledged that “at Jubilee we grow pumpkins with our left hand; mainly we’re all about biodynamic vegetable growing.” But, he said, he was glad we were here and he thanked us for coming, and in his voice I could hear a person who really knows the non-monetary value of people, of community. We’re not sure Jubilee Farm will be our annual pumpkin patch until Millie is old enough to tromp around on her own, but Jubilee Farm is busy with family events all year and we want to find a way to work this wonderful little farm into the rhythm of our lives.

A world I’m welcome to

And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me”

-Steely Dan

The little neighborhood church that Angela and I have been a part of for more than a dozen years, the church where we were married in the last days of the last century, whose members all held their breath for us when Mara came into our lives and again when Millie came along, and sorrowed with us at the several heartbreaking disappointments between, held its quarterly business meeting this afternoon right after a pot-luck lunch in the basement following the morning service.

There was nothing unusual about this. We heaped our plates with ham and mashed potatoes and potatoes au gratin and pasta salad and green salad and deviled eggs and hot dogs and strawberries and carrots and yellow and orange peppers and coffee and soda and cookies and pastries, and sat ourselves along the long tables to eat it all while catching up on each other’s goings on. Children ran around in adjacent rooms, safe and wild. The agenda was the usual stuff, which I can’t tell you about, except that there was a motion to vote on whether one longtime attendee among us should be accepted as a member of the church.

Becoming and being a member of our little church is not a big deal, and it isn’t that different from not being a member and just participating anyway. We are a small community. As I’ve said before, we’re really a small bunch of families and individuals who happen to like hanging out with each other and who happen also to have a church building to do it in. There aren’t tons of people joining this church. And when they do it’s a pretty informal process.

Back in the days when the church body was bigger there was a class you had to take, just so you’d know the basic stuff about what the church stood for. But nowadays, anyone who joins the church already knows what the church stands for, and what we stand for is each other. We embody the love Jesus handed out without conditions. Anyone joining the church is joining for that reason, because they want to tie up with that ethos and give something back, serve the community in some way. So these days the joining process is a relaxed meeting with the church elders, an exchange of stories about our faith journeys, after which, at the next church business meeting, a vote is put to the membership as to whether so and so should be accepted as a member of the church body.

And then there is a resounding “Aye!” because the vote is always unanimously and joyously affirmative. That’s what happened today, which made me feel really good, because the person the church was voting on was me.

Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows that I’ve been an outsider, faithwise, and sort of prefer it that way. I quit being a joiner sometime in junior high school. But my family, and I in particular, have benefited much from being a part of this little church community. Though I do not have many close personal one-on-one friends anymore — lost, all, to argument or neglect, a few to geography and time — many of the friends of our family are here. The pastor comes downtown in jeans and slippers to have lunch with me at my favorite diner and pick up conversations that we’ve carried on for years. More than once, untraceable money orders sent by anonymous donors have showed up in the mail just when we have been financially pinched, and we suspect our church friends. Angela joins the women of the church for twice-yearly retreats on Whidbey Island where they all read books and play cards and stay in their pajamas all day and don’t have to refill any sippy cups for anyone.

I began to feel several years ago that it was time for me to join the church. It would be the first time in my life I had ever become a member of a church, even though I’ve been involved — sometimes to a degree painful to myself and others — in many since I was a child. If it was ever to be, it would be with this group of Christians. We lost Peter a couple years ago, and we lost old Ted this past summer, and I’ve been feeling that we are in danger of becoming insufficiently stocked with old farts, and since I am headed swiftly in that direction myself… well, it was time that I declared my intention to be here and to be accountable, to say I’d be happy to grow old here and be known, to help hold down the fort in whatever way I can.

Still, there is absolutely never any pressure at our church to join or give or do or think or believe or feel anything on any schedule or in any prescribed way. You’re simply welcome to be with us and celebrate God’s love and care for us and the mystery of Jesus in the way you best understand it. Consequently, I have dragged my feet. Life is busy. And as I said, besides having a vote at business meetings there is little discernible difference at our church between the members and the “people just being there unofficially”. In fact, Angela and I have always stayed for the business meetings after the potlucks and no one has ever told us that we had to leave before the church membership started to talk money issues, and once recently Bob, the facilitator, asked me to open the meeting with a prayer, which I did, conscious though I was that I must certainly be contravening a breach of church bylaw in asking the Most High to bless our time together. And today Carolyn, Ted’s wife (technically widow) hailed me after the business meeting and with a look of delight across her face declared that she had thought I was a member all this time.

That’s sort of the joke; by the time a person gets around to joining our church, everyone looks around at each other and says, “I didn’t know they weren’t a member!”

It’s funny, but it’s also an indicator of something that I hold important about this bunch. It jibes with my sense of how the Kingdom of God really is. The official rules may be one thing, but how they play out in human life is another. At our church, you’re accepted as soon as you show up, and coming further in is more a matter of becoming further known. Yes, you can join by the official channels if you feel moved to, and over time most do, but you don’t have to do anything to reap the full benefit of belonging to the community. It’s yours just for being, just for walking the earth.

The world seemed beautiful

The world seemed beautiful to me this morning as I clomped through the snow on my way to a nearby coffeehouse to work remotely. We’ve had a few inches in the last few days and this morning a layer of below-freezing air beneath a layer of air warm enough to provide rain created the rare phenomenon of freezing Seattle rain, adding icy complexity to the already treacherous driving conditions that were keeping most people off the roads.

The quiet of a world besnowed always surprises me. There was only the sound of my boots crunching the thin icy crust over the snow on the sidewalk as a steady beat. As I approached NE 50th Street from a distance I heard the occasional swish of a car far ahead of me passing in the brown, sanded snow, what I call snud. My mind started turning over a work problem, a white paper on image server technology that I am on the hook for. For awhile I walked on without noticing much.

The quiet little things come into the fore on snow days.

I snapped out of it when, south of 50th, I heard what I at first took for music being played outside or from inside an open window. I realized it was a large and sweet-toned set of brass wind chimes, and finally identified them suspended near the eaves of an old green house — a typical Wallingford Craftsman — voicing a slight breeze in a soulful baritone. I had never heard such pleasant wind chimes before.

Thus rescued from the inside of my head, I saw what was to see. The dark grays of landscape boulders and Douglas firs and pavements (where they showed under places where cars had recently been moved in attempts at travel) and roof shingles, and the dark green of rhodies and junipers and escallonias and ceanothus and rock rose all dropped back into the background as a kind of grayscale chiaroscuro with the invisible white of the snow, so that other things hailed my vision that I don’t normally notice — the auburn highlights in cypress and cedar boles, the copper glow of house numbers, the understated colors of the houses — green, blue, ochre. An eggplant-colored garage door. Tiny, bright red berries on bare, thorny twigs.

A smile unfurled across my cold face. Snow may have the incidental effect of buggering the commute around here, but for me its primary effect is that it makes me focus on simple things, thus serving as a recalibrator. Snow makes me religious. For one thing, I am one of those who believe in an actual God, invisible but not abstract in any way, and not just a power but a benevolence. It has not escaped my notice that snow, far from damaging plants, acts as a protective blanket on their roots and bulbs, keeping them safe from the extreme cold that would otherwise kill them in the course of winter. The beauty of this, which is patent to any skeptic, and the apparent intentionality of this process, which cannot be proved, ignites a little firecracker of joy in my heart. God is looking out for us herebelow. Despite troubles that weigh on human hearts, or rather in the fullness of those troubles could we ever see such fullness, everything will be okay.

Not much snow, but on Seattle's hills a little dab'll do ya.

The coffee shop (Mosaic) was open but empty. I had first pick of croissants and outlets for plugging my laptop into. I sat at a big wooden table with lots of chairs around it. The place is a ministry of the Nazarene church whose basement it occupies, but there is no hidden agenda and no assumptions are made about the state of your soul or your relationship to a creator, a higher power, or whatever you relate to. The point is to foster community. The menu and prices are decoratively listed on a big board above the counter as in many coffeehouses, but the prices are merely suggestions for donation. If it weren’t for this unusual pay-what-you-can ethos and the fact that it is located in a church, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a regular coffeehouse. In addition to the large and uncrowded central space with its dark wood posts and dark wood tables and chairs and benches and sofas there is also a playroom for children and their families.

The music overhead, a shuffle of Adele, Steve Miller and the J. Geils Band, suggested a three-disc CD player somewhere in the back room or behind the counter. A half hour after I arrived, a young couple shuffled in and after looking over the pastries, took up residence a little ways across the room on a couch near a fireplace console and began kissing. The young woman did not remove her hat, which had a long bill on it like a baseball cap, and in fact it was the strange, slow, circular undulations of the upturned cap bill and its close proximity to the young man’s head that caught my eye and told me they were engaged in that bizarre ritual of earthlings, which always seems to me more bizarre when two people in public can shut out the entire world from their intense focus on each other.

I watched them kissing for a moment, his glazed muffin perched on the arm of the sofa. It seemed like the only thing I could imagine a young pair doing on a day like today when the world was covered in snow and not going anywhere in a hurry.

Boxcars, hard chili and the long walk to forever

Angela made chili for dinner last night. Like everything she makes, it was delicious, but I noted to myself that the beans were a little al dente.  After dinner we were both moving around in the kitchen and Angela frowned slightly and said, “the chili was…”

She paused. Without thinking it over thoroughly I blurted out “hard”.

“Hard?” she asked. Her slight frown turned into an unslight frown. I saw instantly that that was not what she had been about to say.

I considered making use of that much-used-by-me piece of equipment, the backpedal. Then I just thought, what the hell. We’ve been married forever and we’re going to stay married forever. Might as well just run with it.

I gruffed up my voice to sound like Sam Elliot doing his “beef, it’s what’s for dinner” schtick and said as if to advertise it to cowboys, “Ang’s Hard Chili! Made with hard beans, the old-fashioned way.”

It struck her funny. She added “Hard to come by!” and “Hard to resist!”

“Hard to chew!” I tossed in.

So we put it all together and had a good laugh:

“Ang’s Hard Chili. Hard to come by. Hard to resist. Hard to chew. Made with hard beans, the old fashioned way! A hard chili for a hard ride.”

This reminds me of another food story, one that is responsible in a way for my being married. Before I knew Angela, I knew Kelley. I met Kelley contra dancing and because she was both a knucklehead and a good dancer, I took an instant liking to her. She too me. Turned out I lived just a couple blocks from where she and her husband Marc raised their smoke. Her husband didn’t dance but preferred to stay home and work on the addition he was building on their house, and because she wanted to share some of her new dancer friends with him, she started entreating me to come over on Thursday evenings and break bread with her and Marc, then she and I could drive to the Thursday-night dance together. Halve the gas use, double the fun. I have never been one to return a blank stare to someone offering me a free dinner, and I was a wolfishly hungry bachelor in those days. It became the Thursday routine.

One evening Kelley told me she’d invited another “dinner orphan” to join us, a woman named Angela who lived on the East Side and could never manage to fix herself anything to eat before setting out for the dance.

I frowned. I only knew one Angela, and while I thought she happened to be the most fetching woman in the folk-dancing community, and one of the best dancers, I had not had pleasant experiences with her. Or rather, my strong impression was that this Angela didn’t like dancing with me. The nature of contra dancing is such that if someone of the opposite sex is anywhere in the same contra line as you you will eventually swing them. I had swung Angela many times, and had managed to secure her as my partner a few times — she was always promised two or three dances out — and I knew that her swing was silky smooth. When she twirled, her yard-long black pony-tail, banded several times along its length, would swing out behind her, terminating the élan of other dancers within its radius. She was beautiful and light on her feet, but she always seemed to be eager to be out of my grasp. Angela hates it when I tell this, and usually interrupts about now to insist that when she first met me her mind made “an association” of my face with someone else’s whom she disliked.

I told Kelley I only knew one Angela and that dinner would certainly be interesting if it was she.

She it was. We sat on paint buckets for dinner because Marc was in the middle of blowing up the dining room, and Marc, as resourceful a man as you’d ever care to meet, had rigged us up a little table of some of the flotsam in the new addition. It was a bright evening and we had a good time, the four of us, in that bright new room. In person, and with food in my mouth, I found favor in Angela’s eyes. My wit and charm somehow came through with the aid of Kelley’s cooking and the ambiance of new beginning that Marc had created by remodeling their house.

The Thursday night dinner evolved into a full blown pre-dance feast, to which Kelley would invite some subset of the dancers she wanted to get to know better, a different guest-list every week. She experimented with seating known conservatives next to known liberals, shy persons next to windbags, just to see what would emerge. We would eat and make merry, and Marc would get to meet all Kelley’s friends, and then we’d all go off dancing. Angela and I were each grandfathered in and had standing invites to the table, and we came almost every week. The dinner became something of a legend for a while, and it was the aegis under which Angela and I embarked on a deep and enduring friendship, even as we each brought dates and significant others over the course of those years. Riffing on that Costner movie about the wolves, Kelley and Marc and I began referring to Angela as “Swings Her Hair and Many are Slain.”

Marc and Kelley, whom I bless forever, eventually took it on as a kind of project to get Angela and me together. It was obvious to them that we belonged together. It was not obvious to me until much later. It became obvious to Angela one night at Kelley’s table when I told the story of my grandparents and the biscuits and the boxcars. This was a story my mother had told me, and I told it one night to the full table when I happened to be seated at one end, we’ll say the foot, and Angela happened to be seated at the head. So it seemed to her as though I was telling the story down a long corridor of witnesses directly to her, witnesses to the rightness of what she was suddenly aware that she’d been feeling toward me for some time.

For me, it was just another gleeful moment among friends when my mouth was open and food was going in and some silliness was going out.

The story? Oh, it was just a little ditty. On the morning after my grandparents’ wedding day, my grandmother made biscuits for breakfast, hoping her culinary effort would please her new husband. But the biscuits were rock hard. This was during the Depression, and they didn’t have money to go anywhere, so they had risen and breakfasted in their own apartment, beside which there happened to run some train tracks. When my grandfather was unable to do any injury to the biscuits with his teeth, the two of them started laughing. Far from a marital catastrophe, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable memories of their lives, because they took the biscuits out onto their little balcony and threw them at a passing train. They sounded off the boxcars with a hollow metallic tong!

Angela sat at the other end of the table beaming at me. I still remember the look on her face, a softening, maybe a surrender, though at the time I’m sure I only imagined she was working on a burp. She has never been able to explain to me satisfactorily what it was about my telling that anecdote that sealed it for her, but it was something about how I valued the story and the image of my forebears in that small and beautiful moment, and my enjoyment of telling it. After that, she just never stopped being near me, like Catherine in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story The Long Walk to Forever, who keeps insisting to her old sweetheart that she has to prepare for her imminent wedding, but acquiesces to a walk with him even though she doesn’t exactly know why, and knowing somewhere in her heart that the walk will never end.

Well, I don’t expect you to fall in love with me just because I related this tale. It doesn’t surprise me that magic like that would only work once. But that’s fine with me, because once turned out to be enough.

A part of it all

Mara became interested in Morris dancing at as early as four years of age. Angela played a CD of Morris music and Mara took rather a fancy to it until it became one of her favorite discs. And she’s always known that music was for dancing to, so she started dancing around in the living room to Morris music with shakers and bells, which is just a step away — literally — from Morris dancing.

A little nervous.

Saturday we breakfasted early and high-tailed it over to a retirement and assisted living home on Queen Anne. We forgot Millie’s diaper bag but we remembered to have Mara wear red pants and a white shirt, which along with a striped sash and elf hat would identify her as a member of Seattle’s newest youngest Morris group, Peppermint Stick Morris, a “minor” version of Sound and Fury Morris led by Kimberly and Dave from that austere troupe. Mara told us that morning that she was feeling a little nervous about the dances they were to perform for the retirees there and then again at the Winterfest crafts festival being held at Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center. We would be rushing her from one venue to the next. I was glad she was able to articulate her anxiety, and I told her how nervous I had been whenever I had to get up on a stage as a kid, and that the nervousness is completely normal.

It's about being part of something. Peppermint Stick Morris (and a half).

Eleanor (left), Ian (top), Soren (right) and Mara (bottom) perform a stick dance at Queen Anne Manor.

She has performed with members of this group before, once at an event at Seattle Center and once at a farmers’ market, but some of the parents were also dancing with them then. This would be the first time the children would dance all by themselves and would have to remember the moves without adult prodding. At her age I would have been petrified. I was particularly excited because I had not been able to be present at those earlier shows.

Jingle Bells. Mara's knee is blurry because she's rockin'.

Waiting to go on. Something about this photo gives me a panicky joy, like she's leaving us for the wide world already. The look says, "don't worry Dad. I'm all set."

How happy I was watching Mara do this activity she loves to do. It is one of the most true things about my oldest daughter that she does not allow herself to be forced through things she is not comfortable with, but when she is comfortable she can overcome any fear. I was amazed at how easily she moved through the morning, even and especially after having announced her trepidation about it. The dining hall at the retirement facility, while spacious, was pretty sparsely attended by residents, so in a way it was the perfect ice-breaker for the performance at Phinney Ridge an hour later, where scores of people were gliding in and out — including groups of adult Morrisers waiting to follow Mara’s group onstage — and the noise and bustle were constant.

Giving something to the community. What could be more fun? Peppermint Stick Morris at the Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center.

Misty City Morris await their turn.

Mara’s group performed three dances with sticks and one with kerchiefs, the latter of which Mara did not participate in because she joined the group too late to have learned it for this time around. They also sang three Christmas carols. I was surprised and delighted that Mara did not show any nervousness at all, despite the nervousness she’d claimed. She in fact looked like she was just out for a lark with friends.

And that brings me to what I love most about this whole thing. Mara intuits a facet of performance that always seemed to escape me — that it’s fun! She feels united with her group in the activity and united with the audience in giving them a performance. It’s all about togetherness, or at least it should be. I never felt that way when I was on a stage. The fear of making mistakes always dominated the event for me, which made me miss the joy of being part of something and even made me view the audience as a sort of potential enemy. I was always just eager to get it over with. I missed a lot because of that. I’m glad that Mara seems to get it. I could see it in her antics while she was waiting with her group to go on, and in the way her little body couldn’t help but groove while she was singing the carols.

In ways I would never have predicted, my children become my teachers.

A hallowing

From about my late teens until a few years ago Halloween didn’t mean much to me, and like many people who don’t particularly enjoy suiting up, I wished this day would go away. The pressure to don a costume, my laziness or embarrassment or whatever it was that kept me from doing so, and then the dim self-hatred for not being able to participate were all external or internal discomforts I had rathered not deal with.

Millie teeters off toward Coren, Mara and Gwyneth (far right).

But like many things I didn’t fully appreciate until I had children (they weren’t apparent until I was a parent, har har), Halloween has become a treasured annual tradition in our family. It’s drawn out over weeks with us, though not intensely. First we go to a pumpkin patch with friends in mid-October to get our pumpkins — in recent years we’ve gone to Craven Farm in Snohomish, where there is a big central area with old boats and tractors and other things to play on and hot dogs and bowls of chowder to buy, plus a tractor-pulled hayride and pumpkin catapults, though years ago we went to Jubilee Farm near Carnation, a smaller farm run by a charming pair of biodynamic farming pioneers named Erick and Wendy. Mara and her buddy Gwyneth cannot remember a time before this tradition in their lives, and their little siblings Coren (Gwyn’s little brother) and Millie are jumping into it gleefully behind them. This is something I really value for my kids, the scrounging about outside in the mud of a real farm, the annual reinforcement of smells and air temperature and angle of light and community that will inform a lifelong deep-memory association of this time with the earth and good friendships — and the cultivation of both. To me it’s the perfect way to kick off what I must inevitably call our Halloween Season.

A barrow full of smiles.

Let the carving begin. Mara hunkers down at Hillary's elbow to wait out the sharp part.

Next, there’s a day when we carve the pumpkins, which we usually do separately, Gwyn’s family tending to be on the ball earlier while we are lucky if we get carving done the afternoon of Halloween. This year our friend Hillary came over to carve with us and help Angela alter the clothes that would become Mara’s Rapunzel outfit. Angela bakes up the pumpkin seeds just right for a delicious and wholesome harvest-time snack.

And finally the great day, the hallowed e’en, comes. Although dressing up as princesses with your best friend and running around yelling and squealing is actually kind of a weekly thing for Mara and Gwyneth, the addition of being outside (after dark!!) and getting free candy at house after house turns routine fun into a sublime hoedown of candy-coated madness. But even a parent worried about tooth decay can see that it’s about more than just the candy. For Mara it’s the door opening…that moment of expectation. Will there be a scary person behind the door (always a possibility, and she has never forgotten the time when the man in our neighborhood we call the Halloween Man opened his door wearing an Edvard Munch’s “Scream”-like mask, which sent Mara and Gwynnie back down the stairs in a candyless retreat)? What kind of candy will they offer? Will they let her take two pieces? Three?

Two Rapunzels, a lion and a ladybug. Here we are. You know the drill.

Mara, Gwyneth and Coren on somebody's porch. Mara immediately reports every item of candy, how many pulls alotted, and any other data she can think of. The CNN of candy traffic.

Millie was only four months old last Halloween and Angela wore her on her chest. This year, Millie had her own ladybug costume and held her own bag and stood mostly on her own feet and made her own startlingly prehensile grasps into the lowered bowls. She even said “Dant doo” quietly to each bowl-holder. One older lady actually understood this little toot of a spondee and smiled and said “Oh you’re very welcome.” What could be a more beautiful thing to experience on a cold night in autumn silvered by a crescent moon?

Millie wasn't really keen on her ladybug costume, either, but she got into it, literally, when she saw the big kids donning theirs.

It occurred to me last night that while I have in the past ridiculed this annual tradition, it was only because I was seeing it from my curmudgeonly perspective. Adults held hostage to packs of roaming sugar-fiends. But what I saw tonight I saw through Mara’s and Millie’s eyes — for Mara the joy of an adventure with her friends, gathering a bounty hidden behind doors with the added titillation of potential frights, and for Millie an extension of her unspoiled worldview to the wider community. While it may be a new thing for her, it is no strangeness that we’re knocking on the doors of our neighbors. That they open, that they smile and express delight at seeing us, that they bless us with gifts.

It didn't take Emilia long to get the hang of the bowl. She even said thank you.

She doesn't mind if she does.

And why not?


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