On Writing

All an aspiring author need do, to find inspiration, (or in my case, induce perspiration) is to read Poe, Tracy Kidder, or my current torturer: James Joyce……‎(my High School English teacher introduced me to Edgar, my sister introduced me to Tracy, and my mother inspired me to attempt Joyce)…..ten minutes into Joyce and I am once again reminded why I wrote a children’s book: “The Boy, The Farmer”….currently number 381,455 on Amazon’s Lest Seller List.

If these three artists don’t make an aspiring writer run screaming straight to the children’s section, you are either delusional, or a really good writer…..
‎(or, as is often the case, both).

‎After a boat ride down the Mississippi with Tom and Huck , I typically head to the couch for a session with Doctor Suess…….Twain tweaks all my hopes and dreams of becoming an author, and I always find comfort inside the pages of Cat in The Hat, or if I’m really red with writer envy, Go Dog Go and black raspberry ice cream makes me feel better

I dare you: go read the opening sentences to “The Black Cat” or Kidder’s “Strength in What Remains” and you’ll see why I shredded my book “Ebenezer Mudgett and the Pine Tree Riot”. ‎….better to keep your mouth shut and let people assume you’re an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt. (Twain)

So I muzzled Mudgett.

Poe’s prose is what all other prose should be measured against; although not fair, it would save so much time and paper if more budding authors were to test themselves against Poe’s pen:

“For the most wild yet homely narrative for which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed were I to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence…..My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events”.

Huh? Are you kidding me? Reading Poe’s words make me imagine his head as a dimly lit attic filled with cobweb-covered rockers and gradmother’s fox shawl. I can smell the depressed hope chests and hear the creaking floorboards as Poe’s words swirl through my head. He is the best arranger of words, and spinner of yarns, the world has ever known.

His Black Cat story is scary….not only because he savagely kills his wife and buries the cat alive, but because he scares the already frightened little author in me right under the blankets.

And of course there’s Mark Twain. He used words like Dali used a brush …..Twain once remarked: “the difference between the right word, and the almost right word, is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug”.

Twain inspired me to read more…..but, he confirmed my mediocrity that had been stirred up by Poe.

And , alas, there’s Emily Dickinson.
We holed up in her Amherst attic for years; me begging her to let me name her poems, she telling me to not stop reading.
“Because I could not stop for death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality”

Yes, I’m grateful for all the dreamy moments Emily gave me…..but I am also mad at her for waxing SO majestically that my dozen poems were given grades no greater than C+ ‎, and were typically accompanied by words like: “getting better Jeffrey! Next time don’t forget to count your syllables!”

That Damn Emily Dickinson!

And then, I found Tracy Kidder, as Lesley announced that his “Mountains Beyond Mountains” would be required reading for anyone expecting to sleep over at the farm.

‎Tracy is a master researcher and story reporter.

He makes sure you leave the Mountains loving Dr Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl. (real life characters who lived the tale in obscurity, until Tracy brings them, and their tales, to life)

His subject matter is deep and powerful to begin with, but his perspectives are, his picture painting is, profound.

Ultimately, my final nudge to the childrens’ book section was the reading (and weeping) of ‎Kidder’s tutorial on writing: “Good Prose”‎…..wow! there’s SO much i’ll never be good at, thanks for add ing to the list Tracy!

But then I said to myself: “Jeff! Snap out of it. You’re a darn good writer, and somewhere out there is an audience waiting to read what you have to say!”

So I decided to hold a retreat, a writers’ workshop, to explore my dream of writing a book. I decided to consult my childhood friends because, afterall, who would better understand you than the characters you grew up with.

‎We all gathered around a campfire in 100 Acre Wood and I asked each of my friends what type of book I should write.

Who was there?

Mike Mulligan, and Mary Ann
George and his friend, The Man with the Yellow Hat.
Sal
The Cat
The Onceler (he spoke for the trees as well)
Peter Rabbit
Tigger
Piglet
Some of the Berenstein Bears even showed up‎.

But….the icing on the cake, the honey in the pot, was the unexpected visit by my old friend Winnie.
He asked the Main Branch of the New York Public Library if he could skip across the pond to attend my writers’ workshop‎; they got in touch with the late Christopher Robin Milne, who said it was ok.

‎Surprise surprise, they all inspired me to write a children’s book. I decided there isn’t any shame in writing for an audience who might drool, vomit or chew on your book….just make the pages more durable!

Think about it. Kids’ books are easier to write, funner to read, and when people see you after reading yours they say things like “what a sweet story” and “I loved your book, I read it on the elevator the other day”.

Low bar. No pressure.

One last bit, before I have to get out of bed and make breakfast for the kids (it’s almost noon?!)

Let me relay a ‎conversation I had at the mallish bookstore last month, in an effort to show you what type of reader I have become…..

I approach the round INFORMATION island and address the bookarian: “Excuse me ma’am? Can you point me to the coffee table book section?”

Not making eye contact, smirk locked in place, she replies: “What type of pictures are you looking for?”

I suffer her disdain, having grown accustomed to it since my 7th concussion sent me to the magazine rack…..”Oh, I typically know it when I see it.

Barn books, World War Two books….perhaps something about Kings, or maybe the Medici’s?

“Ok, I understand sir. You’re what we call a KISS reader here at Scribble Booksellers. Keep it simple and stupid”
I smirk back at her.

I get in line behind the snooty little school marm with her cool employee badge hanging around her neck like some kiddy-pool lifeguard’s whistle and we make the long walk….down through the school grades….
It feels like the proverbial “walk of shame” as the smart people with attention abundance ‎disorder step back and make a path for me. I can hear the whispers….”he’s a picture book reader”, and “I bet he has a coffee table in every room”…..

So , we finally arrive at the “simple and stupid” books …stacked high next to the umbrellas and reading lamps.

‎I am what I am. My coffee table books are stacked so high we use them as chairs when guests come over.
And I love kids’ books, kids’ movies, and kids’ menus.

And,

That’s why I am now, officially, a published children’s book author. Thanks to Edgar, Emily, and Tracy. …..and to all my wrinkled , dog eared, torn and tattered friends in the 100 Acre Wood.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Comedy? or Documentary?

Part 1 in a series, studying the culture and chaos that play out in a Greek family, through the eyes of a non-Greek, who stumbled into it all by marriage, unaware of the customs, protocols, and traditions.‎

Allow me to quickly describe just how “non” I am: 6ft 5, blue eyes, Irish-German, mostly Irish, pale faced, garlic-hating, Catholic.

‎Take all the opposites of these adjectives, and name her Ekaterina, and you have my wife. (She has 4 first names and 2 birthdays but we talk about that in part 2 of this series)

This overview can be printed and wrapped as a gift for anyone you may know who is about to marry into a Greek family. Trust me; it will be the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.

Being married to a Greek is an odyssey.

And since Katrina’s father has been translating words for me since I met him 20 years ago, just like the windex-spraying father in the documentary “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” , I might as well translate the word “odyssey”.

It is derived from the Greek hero Odysseus, the protagonist in Homer’s 8th century B.C. story by the same name. Odyssey has come to refer to an “epic voyage”, according to Wikipedia.

I intend to write Websters , and Wiki, and petition them to add a little something to the definition, just a pinch, for flavor: Odyssey: the epic voyage, as inevitable derivative of marrying into a Greek family.

Boat ride aside, allow me to highlight some Greek superstitions‎ (redundant term) , and Greek drama (also redundant), that will play out in the kitchen, and dinner table, so as to better equip you to survive.

First of all….relax….take a breath‎….but, most importantly, EAT.

Say “yes” to al‎l offers of food.
‎Flaming cheese?
Yes please!
Rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves?
Yumm!
More garlic and olive paste?
Obviously!

‎I do NOT care how full you are. Irrelevant! Eat!

Never ever ever say: “I’m not hungry, we grabbed a bite on the drive over”….a hush will come over the room….the quiet will leak out into the other rooms, filling the house with a silence that is hard to describe. Even the crying baby will get quiet.

So, DON’T “grab a bite” anywhere other than from your father-in-law’s ‎carving plate or your mother-in-law’s kitchen.

‎Don’t pay any attention to the rapid-fire Greek ricocheting across the table….(you’ll want to describe the discussion as a screaming match, truth of the matter is the Greeks lower their voices when they’re really angry.) As the tempo increases and there’s 6 people talking in fast-Greek all at the same time, they’ll start to let your name slip….. they reach a point where they no longer care that you know they are arguing about you.

This is when you need to act natural. Dip some pita into the bowl of tan colored goop and eat it eagerly. Clank your knife as you butter your bread…..as if you don’t even notice that your mother-in-law is giving you the evil eye. (how would I know you don’t give a Greek woman a pearl ring? Apparently it symbolizes tears, or car accidents, I can’t remember).

If they are arguing and you don’t hear your name? Listen for the word that sounds like “eftos”….that means “he”. Just smile at your girlfriend, fiance, wife…and don’t be stupid and say: “what did they say?” Hello? She’ll tell you later. If it was good and funny and harmless she would have already told you.

Now, remember this: There are typically two reasons that the table has erupted into Greek (jewelry error aside):

#1. You didn’t take seconds of Yaya’s pastitsio. (do NOT call it lasagna, or Greek lasagna!)

True story: I’m at my first meal at my wife’s house on the south side of Chicago‎ and after I taste the lasagna (oops, I mean pastitsio) my mother-in-law is on me like white on rice: “so, Jeff, whose Pastitsio is better? Katerrrrina’s? Or mine?”

Wow! I was stuck and as I reached for a sip of room temperature water, I was “saved”…..Nick (Kat’s brother Nick, not cousin Nick, or Uncle Niko) whispers through his napkin:
“The Lagen women sure are great cooks!”

“THE LAGEN WOMEN SURE ARE GREAT COOKS YAYA”
……such a close call…….(Kat told me later that Nick had let her previous boyfriends squirm and suffer on that question, “he must really like you”)

Or, #2: You put salt on the avgolemono after tasting it. Oh My God! Are you an idiot? Here’s what you just said to your mother-in-law who is watching you even when she isn’t facing you. ‘Your soup is awful. You’re a bad cook”.

Until you have put in 100 hours at the dinner table you have not yet earned your salt. Just eat and say “mmmmm” after each bite.

If you DO make the salt error? Just relax, sip your 7-Up from the fancy drinking glass with all the designs and motifs and inlaid gold leaf on it, and realize that you’ll need to start your clock all over again, no matter how many hours of table time you have at that point.

#3, ok, there’s more than two.
They are mad that you just described Easter as “Greek Easter”. (there is no such thing as “Greek” Easter, even though it typically falls on a different Sunday from your Easter‎….it’s just Easter)

#4 They are furious with your wife, who just insulted the family by poking fun at the wrought iron railings throughout the INSIDE of the house, or the 6 statues in the front yard.

My advice is to NOT break into the maelstrom; just sit back and smile sheepishly….which reminds me: eat more sheep. Whenever it becomes awkward at the table, and they start speaking Greek, reach for the lamb. There’s a 50% chance that simple act will reduce the tension…..if it doesn’t, try looking down and blessing yourself 3 times…going right to left, not left to right. do it really fast where it’s almost impossible to notice that your hand stopped anywhere.

Since they know they’re guilty of trash talking you, they’ll now wonder if you’re praying for their souls, which will compel them to quickly break into ‎prayer, asking for forgiveness. Emerge from your meditation rejuvenated and upbeat…..you have survived!

Pass the tzatziki ‎please.

Standby for part 2 in our series.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding: comedy? Or documentary?”

Pigs are smarter than dogs. Why are we torturing them?

Gestation crates confine sows for the 115 days of their pregnancy to manage the amount of feed they consume, and make their “care” more affordable/efficient. It is animal torture.

Factory farming at its worst. (read this story from Justmeans‎ titled “You Reap What You Sow:top food companies ban gestation crates”)

Pigs have been proven to be smarter than dogs, and even some primates. They are highly social. These sows are providing us with baby pigs, that then provide us with bacon and sausage and ham.

‎Obviously. But what type of existence did our food endure before sustaining us with nourishment?

Let me answer, candidly. The sows are confined in cages that don’t permit them to turn around, barely enabling them to lay down. The cages are 7 x 2. As of May 2013 more than 4million pigs were living out most of their lives in these dungeons. Pigs have been proven to suffer emotions like fear and stress.

Now some good news….by prodding these factory farmers (who somehow have purged their circuitry of the remorse emotion), and banging on the fast food factories, decent and conscientious people are making a difference.

I am not going to show you the horrific images of gestation crates , and I advise you not to press “images”….just read the attached article if you are compelled to learn more.

Let me also attach this inspirational music video from film-maker Johnny Kelly.‎ I beg you to watch it. You’ll probably remember it from 2011, paid for by Chipotle. (a leading conscientious food company). Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist” as a farmer realizes his “progress” has been at the expense of his soul.

It has 8,633,697 views as of this moment.

I want to use this video as a way of showing you how one company can affect far reaching change. (Chipotle turned the pork producers on their ears!)….and there is encouraging news that through activism and consumer behavior, gestation crates are being phased out. Google that.

I want to give the intentional consumers, the informed consumers, the stand-up and scream ENOUGH consumers, a shout out, for all that you do in the name of simple decency.

What can we do? What can we continue to do?

Simply by buying organic, asking for local food, asking your butcher where he buys his pork, only patronizing establishments that treat our food with respect before they slaughter it….THESE actions change behavior.

Shop at Chipotle. And Whole Foods. And farmers’ markets. And come meet our friend tom Truelove in May of 2015 and he’ll explain how he makes his Truelove sausage…..‎you’ll like what you learn, and love what you eat.

Know your farmer.

Keep speaking with your checkbook.

Green People

Katrina was meeting with a possible new vendor for ‎the Back40 Mercantile at the Dallas show before we opened and after hearing Kat recite our store’s sustainability mission the woman says, in a fairly loud drawled out voice:

“OH SO YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE GREEN PEOPLE”
(when Kat retold it, “green” had two syllables)

Any grower, manufacturer, or retailer who commits to a sustainability mission faces myriad obstacles, and if you don’t have scale or staying power (aka capital), you are more likely to fail than you are to sell your business to Whole Foods and buy a biomass-powered mega yacht……

It has been our experience (6 months into this odyssey as green merchants) that the most difficult obstacle is public opinion and public perception.

If you talk about “it” too much, they will wait for you in the bushes and jump out when you least expect it and proclaim: “Sinner! I see you eating that Slim Jim! You know the hogs they use to make that meat stick are raised on GMO corn!! SHAME!”
-there’s meat in Slim Jims?-

I know for me I don’t want to be preached AT re my lifestyle choices. I didn’t litter today, but am I a bad person because I also didn’t recycle that soda can?

I can’t help it!! Have you seen how many garbage can choices there are these days? With all the different sized openings?

Being “Green” is hard , y’all.

I was at the Portland Oregon airport not long ago and they now have 7 garbage can colors, and a pen‎ with a 1,000 pound sow called Recycle. I almost missed my flight trying to separate my trash from my waste, and my re-compost from my recycled. ‎(what’s re-compost?)

I try to buy fresh, local, sustainable, organic food whenever possible, but, gosh darnit who doesn’t occasionally like a Snickers bar or maybe a 5 pound bag of Fritos?!

So, with that backdrop, please understand that I, and my 3 partners at the Back40 Mercantile, are not sustainability preachers…..far from it.

I’m the guy the preacher drags into church and demands I repent for my addiction to Dentyne gum and Milk Duds. I gave up those shrink-wrapped airport muffins 3 years and 5 months ago. (one day at a time).

Katrina maintains a secret (former secret, I suppose) “junk drawer” in our room at the Back40 Farm filled with emergency provisions: Goldfish, Good-n-Plenty, and Cheeze-its (don’t worry Kat, you know Lesley is too busy to read my blog).

Kat and I are aspiring practitioners of the sustainability movement….I read a lot of sustainability stuff, sometimes aloud if Kat is having a tough time falling asleep….I attend the occasional conference, and drive the occasional Greenpeace skiff out in front of a whaling ship, but I’m no Phil Dunphy hero saving the planet. Oh sure, I agree with Al Gore and I never use pesticides or herbicides or any of the other cides when growing my fruits and veggies, but I have been known to order my food into a faceless speaker from time to time.
Bill and Lesley? Other end of the spectrum.

The people who painted her house last week won the job not because they promised to use low VOC paint on HER house! They had to promise to only use low VOC paint from now on, forever.

Her lawn is always 2 shades less green than her neighbors’. Ironically, as it turns out, if you live a “green life”, you will be green with envy of your dark green ‎neighbor’s lawn…..someone help me here I’m tired! Blogging is harder than it looks.

Back to our regularly scheduled broadcast:

Lesley and Bill are not sustainability preachers, per se, but they ARE sitting in the front pew of Sustainability Church…..and they are surrounded by people they have convinced to live the sustainable life.‎ So, I would call them leaders, and I am not too proud to call myself a follower.

All kidding aside, for a few sentences: Everything I have learned about sustainability, Lesley and Bill have directly or indirectly taught me.

Bill is on the board of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. It can best be described as Mecca for the sustainability movement. (and it’s crawling with Foodies so only wear clothes that were new a long time ago).
‎And Lesley keeps us all honest and informed, and insists we be “intentional” in the way we treat the planet. I admire them both.

We want our store to be a fun place to visit. We want our customers to be able to buy ‎products that were made by people we know, in plants we have visited….we want our customers to be able to use the 4 other senses we don’t use while shopping on-line.

If we only had purely defined organic and sustainable products however, our store itself wouldn’t be sustainable….reality is, American clothing companies use the far East, Turkey, Portugal, the U.K to make their products. As soon as America makes a cashmere sweater that can compete with Alan Paine in terms of quality? It’s on our shelves. ‎In the meantime, you’ll have to suffer in the nicest sweater I’ve ever worn, while we continue to search for a Made in America cashmere sweater.

Everything can’t be “organic”….that’s ridiculous.

Reality is, organic clothing is not very exciting….it’s sort of like the rice cakes of the garment industry. Imagine wearing a sweater that you can grill and serve with fava beans and a nice Chianti…..

Let’s keep one foot in reality as we all try and live cleaner healthier lives.

We all want to be better stewards of the planet….‎we know that about our customers because so many of them were friends before they were customers.

‎And it is our business plan to provide you the opportunity to buy a great product that also provides an opportunity for a conscientious manufacturer to sell a great product. Say that 4 times and it will make sense; I promise.

It is my opinion that the reason our store has been so well received is because we have assembled a collection of very well made, very stylish and classy products that also happen to be made by small business owners who adhere to sustainable manufacturing processes, sold to you by passionate and professional people who take pride in their jobs.

‎The sustainable “movement” is filled with opportunity. It’s bursting at the seams.

But, if you make organic crackers and they taste like cardboard, they won’t sell well, and you have just succeeded in making a NON sustainable product (because your cracker business will be out of business). We want our store to be an organic cracker that tastes great…‎…so great that you come back for more.‎…so much more, that our store becomes sustainable. And we want you to buy our products and shop in our store not because we’re those “green people”, but because we’re just like you: We want awesome unique products made by awesome unique people….pure and simple.26

ode to Daddy’s little birthday girl

My daughter turned 13 today.
830am, C section, Santa Monica Hospital, Arnold Schwarzenegger Maternity ward.

I remember it like it was 68 years ago.

One day my little girl got tall
She used to be so small
And her birthday wish today?

Can I go to the mall?

I remember when she looked up at me from knee height, one HOT sunny day in Los Angeles….

Disney for parents in August is cruel and unusual punishment…..”uppy uppy”‎ she would say, as she quickly would position herself in front of my moving legs…..daring me to trip over her, as I struggled to carry the pink boa I won for her, tattered lamby tucked into my shorts and frozen slushy that was acting as a coolant…her arms stretched up in that -I’m ready to be lifted up’ position….she preferred to be carried…..who can blame her….if we left the house? I was carrying her. If we went upstairs? She was on my back. If we played in the toy room, she was on my lap, or on my back……

The only problem was as she was getting bigger my back was getting weaker‎, my knees wobblier.

So, there we were, at Disney….she was now probably 5yrs old…and technically past the legally mandated must-carry age and weight…..there HAS TO be a law that says “you must be less than 50 pounds to be carried by a parent”…..with a bunch of small print….

If over 85 degrees, and you know how to walk, or be pushed in a stroller, you mustn’t burden parent with sad face requests to be carried‎…. If father is already carrying sibling, two ice creams, or stuffed animals, you are not permitted to even ask for a lift….I often carried both of my children.

Much easier if one is in the backback….if they’re both in your arms the weight distribution is dangerous…..I remember one time at the L.A zoo I was carrying them both; when they were 15 and 40. (pounds), and a stroller hit my heels and hurled me forward…..gravity was not my friend that day ladies and gentlemen….thank God the Polar bear habitat had a row of shrubs in front of it…

‎Ok, where was I? Oh, right, at Disney, sweat pooling in short pockets, flip flops melting into the asphalt.

(I can’t remember the park’s motto; should be Hell on Earth. Sorry Walt, somebody had to say it)

So there she was, my sweet little cherub, hands up in the air, neck bent backwards, looking up, red sweaty face, 5 years old….”uppy Daddy uppy”.”But Marianna, it’s so hot! Disney is so big. I can’t carry you anymore”…..”uppy uppy”. “I’m sorry Mari, I can’t lift you up”….long pause…”but Daddy, it’s tradition”.

You know what happened next.

-she was picked up, and not put down until I fainted with back spasms and a 104 core temperature.
I woke up sitting on the grass under a tree, ice packs on my neck….Mari was on my lap.

Those were the days, my friend, I hoped they’d never end…..

I tried to give her a piggy-back ride up the stairs the other night , and was amazed at what had happened over the last few years. Her toes were scraping on the floor‎, her arms completely around my whole body….I felt like I was in some sort of dream, training as a fireman as I pushed my legs to go up each step…..I could hear the tendons as they strained, surgically repaired back creaking louder than the old wooden stairs….as we hit the halfway mark I dared to do my fake fall backwards trick…..I decided not to since by then I was on my elbows, crawling up the steps like a drunk ninja…..

It was a sad day for me……I can no longer carry my little girl….she stretches from one end of the bed to the other….
And to add insult to injuries? She doesn’t want to be carried….and today? On her 13th birthday? She wants to hang out with her friends. “Sorry Dad”, she whispered as she gave me the news.

She’s a teenager now…..

all I can hope is I raised her well, during all those uppy uppy moments…..in the hot sun….and readied her for the cold world.

I’ll be here, waiting to lift her up, if she ever gets knocked down…if she ever needs a lift…..waiting, until I ‎need a lift myself….

Uppy Uppy Marianna. It’s tradition.

Rough Housing

Football used to be a 4 season sport.

In my childhood, we played football year ’round. My 4 brothers and I would play Full contact, aggressive tackle football.‎….in pads on teams, AND on the playgrounds and back yards, without pads, without supervision.
I once traveled through the air holding onto the waist of a much larger boy who was running for a touchdown‎…..i whipped around him like a cartoon, and crashed straight into the telephone pole that we had determined would be one end zone marker. My thigh hit that pole square on….and I crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain. My brothers and the other village idiots rushed over to me…..are you okay? can I wear your cleats?

Our pants were covered with mud and grass stains. Our faces had shiners and our our bodies covered with cuts and bruises. All the time.

And when we weren’t playing outside? We were playing in our bedrooms. We had this game where one of us would run full speed towards a bed and another brother would spring up from a crouched position, propelling us through the air and onto the surgically repaired bed, like an NFL player jumping over the pile to score a touchdown as time ran out.

Another brother would play the role of Howard Cossell or Frank Gifford, announcers from Monday Night Football…..(a show we were permitted to watch if we took a nap after school)

“HERE COMES DREW PEARSON DOWN THE RIGHT SIDELINE! HE. COULD. GO. ALL. THE. WAY!!”

We broke so many bed boards and lamps and tables my mother just gave up on ever replacing our bedroom furniture….. none of our beds had the original boards…in fact, we were constantly looking for wood scraps we could fashion into bed slats.‎.

I remember the time Warren went flying towards me, holding a pillow case stuffed with socks to resemble a football. I lurched upwards as always, he bounced off me and flew through the air as always, and landed far across the bed, crashing into the wall, as sometimes.

His head smacked the cast iron radiator and blood started to gush out. We ran down to tell Mom and as she was instructing my sister Lia to stop the bleeding (Mom didn’t like the sight of blood) she was yelling: “What happened?!?!”

This was always a multiple choice question.

A. He was doing homework and slipped.
B. He was doing homework and the assignment was to fall down and demonstrate the effects of weightlessness.
C. He was helping me with my homework and, well, you get the point.
…lying was the common theme….what was our choice?

My mother would look at our sweaty, flushed faces, ripped shirts (new rips) and say: “Or? You were rough housing? How many times have I told you No Balls In the HO– USE! ?”

I hated a true or false followed by a multiple choice.
Ummm.
A. No we weren’t. And Lots of Times.
B. No we weren’t. And I thought that meant no balls on the main floor, near your table.
C. No we weren’t. And I thought you said No Whiffle Balls!.

Mom’s table. What am I referring to?

There was this one particular table that my mother was especially attached to. It was very dainty; if a flamingo was a table this is what it would look like.

What was so special about it? It had not ever been repaired‎….it had survived uncrushed for 10 years!

She was attached to it because it resembled something new, something presentable for the times that neighbors might come over to return a cat or a frisbee, or perhaps ask for money to replace a window.

‎7, 450 “balls-in-the-house” ….650 “throw me the salts”. 65 errant nerfs and 120 main event wrestling matches that spilled down the stairs into that one room where Dad read the paper, kicked the dog and barked at assorted pro athletes who didn’t do what he thought they should do:
“He was wide open! Get him out of the game!”

“Watch out for Mom’s table!!”

And then it happened.

I’ll never forget the day. Someone fell directly on the table. As 4 brothers gasped, staring down at the to-this-day-unnamed 5th brother, laying on top of Mom’s Table….those skinny wooden legs poking out; shards of beautiful mahogany falling from the air in slow motion….

Silence. ‎We floated up off the floor we were so quiet.

Nobody moved as we looked at each other.
Luckily Mom was out of ear shot. (Silence always made her come ‎running)

What do we do? Glue! -we all mouthed….we could talk to each other merely by shaping our lips and pointing. Charades without the laughter. Get the glue! (duct tape had not yet been invented)

So it got glued and propped up.

We used to stare at that cockeyed table and make sure our mother never touched it. “NO! Don’t move it mom, we’ll get it. That table is heavier than you think. Where do you want it? ”

It was a sad day when she finally noticed it was just a bit off and she noticed the fractures and the glue.

No true or false questions.
No multiple choice questions.
Just silence as she gently sat down….we all took a step back; the way you do when a strange dog had spotted you and was slowly approaching in that I’m-going-to-bite-you-so-don’t-bother-running kind of way.

As I felt the cold wall paper on the palms of my hands and realized I had not been blessed by the fortune of a quick escape path . Sweat started to form. Where’s Dad? Who is closest to him? (Warren was gone. He had perfected the ability to vanish, quietly, noisily, didn’t matter. He always had his back to a door, or window; it was uncanny)

Mom didn’t scold. She was too broken to yell. We had finally pushed our mother over the edge.

‎She softly said to nobody, but everybody: “the last piece of nice furniture. I have nothing left; they have broken everything.”
My brothers will remember the tears. (well, except for Warren…he had escaped to his happy place; at the top of our giant Maple in the back yard).

So I broke the silence; it was the right thing to do. Face adversity… stand up and be counted…

“Mom….I’m sorry he broke it”, and then I ran.

‎Oh, and by the way Mom…in case you’re reading this: “Nicky did it”

“The Westchester” and the power of “THE”

12Looks like Denial aint just a river in Egypt. ‎I found myself at Nordstrom to buy my nephew a suit the other day.

The name of the mall was curious….
The parking ticket came out of the little machine complete with a greeting: “welcome to The Westchester”.
Huh? The mall has a fancy name that simply needs to inform us in which county it sits?

Consider the silliness of this attempt at taking a monolithic multi leveled million square foot shopping “experience” to the ‎rarefied air of other “THE” designations.

THE mecca of fill-in-the-blank.
THE Citadel
THE Naval Academy
THE Alllan Parsons Project
THE Hoover Dam
THE Amazon
THE David

THE Stamford

Wait. What was that last one?

The Stamford mall dropped its noun and converted its adjective‎ into the noun?
Reminds me of the day I heard that Prince had changed his name to a symbol.

We were then faced with ‎ridiculous sentences without a subject or pronoun:
“Yes, big news! is coming out with a new album. It is the first album by since he filmed “Purple Rain”.

He then became known as “THE artist formerly known as Prince”.
A legend was born….or was it born again?

Should we consider THE Westchester Mall to be re-born? Is it no longer a mall?
Oh, wait, they have valet parking and a Tesla showroom where Jamba Juice used to be.
Ahhh. That makes sense.

THE mall was empty. I counted 36 employees in the Huge Nordstrom. And thought to myself…
Where is everyone?

My nephew had an answer:
“Over at ‎THE Amazon”

‎THE Amazon aint just a river anymore.

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger

For the Love of Pumpkins!

Gardening is a passion, it’s a labor of love.

‎Ask a non-gardener why they don’t garden and you might hear: ‘why would I crawl around in the dirt, fighting off mosquitoes, pulling weeds and hand picking Japanese Beetles?’ Well, when you put it that way, perhaps we gardeners are the idiots, and the sailors are the savants.

Personally? When I find myself at the yacht club, enduring a clam bake with people who might as well be speaking french, I assertively seek out a sailor and put the question back to them…..but, here’s where you need to be a skilled sarcasticator…..don’t actually say something stupid like : “why do you like sailing?”. Rookie mistake.

There’s an answer coming that will make you stick your green thumbs deeper into your knee stained khakis…..

Instead, put it this way: “I never understood sailing. You can’t catch marlin or tuna from a sailboat, you can’t water ski from a sailboat, and if the wind dies down you’ll miss your tee time and be forced to call the harbor master for that humiliating rope tow into the dock”.

You answer the question yourself, fill it with tongue-n-cheek sarcasm and subtle references to your adventurous lifestyle.

I then quickly move on to the people wearing the shoes that looked like they sprayed them with the hose before they left the house. THOSE are my people.

love-of-pumpkins2Gardening has been my passion since I grew my first tomato plant, FROM SEED, in 1969. Yes, I was 7….see photo. (I’m the one wearing the sailing school tee-shirt in the front…never went to class‎)

Pumpkin vines have been following me across the country. I have grown pumpkins in Queens, Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles‎….I have grown them in dirt, and in soil, in sand, and in gravel…..the most memorable pumpkin patch for me was at my rooftop loft in Chicago, in 1995.

I schlepped ‎ all the supplies through the service entrance, and sowed the seeds in a giant old whiskey cask, cut in half, filled with bags of soil on top of crushed stone. The plants came shooting up and started to stretch across my deck….but then they went beyond the deck and began to venture out across the blacktop roof. Problem.

Let’s try and estimate the temperature of a black tar roof in Chicago, in July, at high noon. It can fry an egg, literally, I did it. The vines started to shrivel up….pumpkins have little tentacles at every cluster of leaves that cling to whatever they come in contact with, and drink water ever so daintily….pumpkin vines can reach 20, even 30 feet long….imagine how hard it is to send water and nutrients that far from the roots. Hence the tentacles.

But my roof pumpkins’ tentacles are now seeking sustenance from black tar roof paper. Crisis! what do I do?

I ran to the hardware store and bought a dozen window flower boxes and more bags of soil…..and an oscillating sprinkler like the one kids run through on your front lawn.

I lined up the flower boxes under the vines, and saved the pumpkin patch. But there was a problem. Given the new lease on life‎, the vines kept spreading. So I kept buying window boxes.

The man at the hardware store said: “How many Windows Do YOU have?” Hurry! It’s 98 degrees outside!

It all ended in disaster I’m sorry to report‎. My sprinklers (I had to buy another) showered the superintendent 6 stories down one dry afternoon and he promptly walked up to my apartment, demanding I explain my artificial climate.

I had to remove the vines. Sad, but true.

What did I do next? Made a big sign and posted it around the neighborhood. “Moving Sale. Everything must go. Special deal on window boxes”. I moved to the suburbs, to let my children thrive, unencumbered by black-top roofs.

Gardening IS a labor of love.

But like all love, and all labor, it often disappoints. ‎But we persevere. We trudge on through drought and monsoon. But let me tell you this: I’m saving my money for a sailboat.

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger

Tommy Towtruck in the Muck

At the Back40 Farm we have 2 John Deere “Gators”. They have replaced the mules and oxen on today’s small farms….small but strong 4wheel drive ATVs with dump beds and tow hitches. We have had more than a few mishaps…..so many come to mind, but let me highlight this one, or two.

My “city mouse” wife took her fancy friend Anne on a Gator tour of the farm, one sunny day…….fancy in this case is a big compliment, as well as a descriptive term that comes into play later……the Back40 property has probably 2 miles of assorted trails, 90% of which are mowed paths through the hay fields. People are instructed: “have fun, stay on the paths, don’t drive with the emergency brake on”

Very simple:
1. Have fun.
2. Stay on the paths.
‎3. Release brake when driving.
Check, check, check.

Katrina of course decides to take a short cut; not noticing that the “hay” she was going to traverse was actually swamp grass. They made it about 25 feet and promptly sunk the Gator, wheels spewing mud in the air as the vehicle sunk slowly….lower, and lower, until the mud had now crept onto the floor boards.

Now picture these 2 city chicks, marooned in a swamp, wearing…….I am going to go easy on them here: leather sandals, sun dresses, sparkling jewelry, all coiffed and mani’d and pedi’d. I’m sorry, it was what it was.

Help! Help! Damsels in distress! Help! We’re sinking!  Anne watch out! The mud is hitting your Espadrilles.

I hear them from 150 yards away and my wheels start moving. (not literally; I’m referring to those fast firing synopses that generate decision making)

‎Quandary. Do I let them sit there like the father who leaves his son in jail to teach him a lesson? Do I mosey on down there, sipping an iced tea, smirking and rolling video?

Both are delicious ideas…that had to be rejected immediately. (i’m ashamed it took me so long to decide what to do…I’m just being honest).

So I hopped up on Clifford the big Red Tractor and drove down there and pulled them out….spending at least an hour knee deep in muck, while the city mice recovered by the pool.

Funny now. Yes. Way funnier then.

Coincidentally, Bill King, Back40 Farm owner, and supreme scolder of Gator Mistreaters, was mowing the high grass in the same spot….tooling around on his soup’d up Kubota sit down mower with the racing stripes and cup holders…..he takes a turn too wide, right near the same swamp…and?

Sinks the mower….almost flipping it.

Again. Quandary.

Bill was wearing his favorite Gucci loafers, gabardine shorts, and a silk/linen blend blue, always blue, dress shirt, with the sleeves gently rolled up. (when I came up to him he was frustratedly cleaning his RayBans, scolding himself)

That swamp has eaten at least 10 Gators. We might as well build a bridge….at least that way I’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon of stone wall hunting without having to play Tommy Towtruck in the muck.

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger

Making Amends With the Foodies

foodie‎I often meet foodies strolling around the Back40 Farm. Assorted visiting foodie dignitaries, foodie authors, foodie restaurateurs, and general foodies for food’s sakes. I can tell a foodie from far away: Comfortable shoes, canvas watch band, floppy hair, thin, and very happy. Then there would be the introductions. ‎ Awkward. (I always wanted to say: “hold that thought. Stay right there. Let me go get my work boots on”)

They would look at my full figure, slicked hair, endangered species belt and give me one of those half smiles….looking back on those encounters is amusing for me now.

Because I have been converted? Because I think sprouts and kale should continue to be categorized as edible? No, not at all, on either count.

I’m amused by what it must have been like for them to meet me…..they had heard about people like me; they had read about us in a Forbes or GQ, when there was nothing else to read in the doctor’s office.

‎But to actually meet an unconscious consumer, in the french fried flesh? Must have been quite entertaining for them.

I can laugh at myself now….it’s not like I can travel back in time and make amends to God, Nature, and all those people who carry a compass to find their food.

I have come very far. Please accept me as reformed, and improved. I often recycle. I haven’t used Miracle Grow on my veggies in 10 years, and I always bring out the organic condiments when my sister visits.

If you think I’m coming up short on the whole sustainable living scale? Think about how far I’ve come, and give a guy a break.

In the 1980’s I ate so much Velveeta spray cheese that my friends would give it to me for birthdays. ‎I drank 6 diet cokes, every day, for 5 years.

For me to be such an outspoken supporter of organic farming, in practice and in preach, is a much bigger accomplishment than some forager foodie who grew up on a kibbutz in the Oregon woods eating soup made out of bark.

I have done 2 juice cleanses, know how to pronounce Quinoa, and have read all of Micheal Pollan’s books. That HAS to count for something!

I remember pulling into the Litchfield Farmers market last summer and thinking to myself, Man, I’m a Foodie! I am a flea-market-shopping, practical shoe wearing, salad eating foodie! It was invigorating!

I’m going to go buy some carrots and iceberg lettuce and cucumbers , (hold the fiddlehead) an organic dressing with a date scribbled on it instead of a label, read Edible Nutmeg and not care what my hair looks like! (well, maybe not the hair; let’s not get crazy here).

Jeff Bischoff
Co-founder Back40 Mercantile
Resident blogger