Joe Writes . . .

gr boulder july 24

July 24, 2016

Drenching rain, lightning and thunder almost caused us to give up without getting the bottom of our canoe wet on this first day.  The explorer in each of us could not allow that to happen – our ancestors having sailed the Great Lakes with wooden hulls and canvas sails – so we drove to the Liberty General Store, south of Jackson along the US-127 corridor and as close as we could drive to the source of the Grand River.  The manager of the store had given us permission to leave our vehicles at the store even though the business was closed this Sunday.

gr headwaters july 24There is a dam at the store, the site of an old mill on the river, and a resultant millpond. From the dam we set out upstream towards Grand Lake, one of two sources of the river.  We would not reach Grand Lake this day due to low water and Giant Bridge Spiders but we got as close to the source as anyone in a canoe could get, which to my way of thinking is damn close.  Perhaps we’ll go all the way to the source on a day when the sun is shining, the water higher, and the spiders less voracious.

The first portion of the millpond was relatively free of lily pads, offering an easy paddle to gr spider bridge july 24a low bridge, so low that we at first wondered whether we would be able to make ourselves small enough to glide underneath.  We bent low at the waist and used our hands to pull ourselves under the bridge.  It was at this point that I noticed huge spiders dangling from webs with strands as thick as the rope we used to tie our canoe to my truck.  These Giant Grand River Bridge Spiders – for such would my research later reveal them to be, Pons Araneae Gigundus Flumen – apparently didn’t notice us until we were halfway under the bridge, at which time they began – in unison – scurrying towards us in from all directions.

“Duck your head!” I screamed to my brother, then grabbed the bridge’s clammy undergirding and pulled as hard as I could, sending our canoe roaring out of the darkness and into the next pond.  If you’ve never heard spiders scream in anger and frustration . . . well . . . it’s is a sound you’ll not forget.  Trust me.

We now entered the first of two connected but distinct ponds, both choked with lily pads.  It was a bit spooky as we paddled forward, the lily pads seeming to grasp at our canoe and the frequent but unidentified sound of numerous large ‘somethings’ belly flopping into the water ahead, bellyflopping always just before we could focus our attention and our eyes to determine precisely what sort of beast was bellyflopping.  Soon there was roiling water at the water line of our canoe.  Muck from the shallow bottom mixed with tepid water, causing the invasive Eurasian Trefoil to fan out and quiver enticingly.  Had I been in the Everglades I would have suspected angry alligators or playful manatees, but we were at the headwaters of the Michigan’s Grand River.

River nymphs?  Dragons?  Only an impression of flame – sensed rather than seen out of the corner of one eye – confirmed the latter.  These local dragons are reputed to be more playful than dangerous, and I was able to relax at last and enjoy their company.  Neither my brother nor I had played with dragons in many years.

The river gods used this shortened first day to teach us important lessons.  Tom dropped gr searching 4 wallet 2 july 24
his cell phone in the millpond but retrieved it – in perfect working order, it being sealed plastic bag – after 30 minutes.  We left our paddles and a life jacket on the ground while we drove off to scout future legs of our journey but returned to find all items just as we had left them.  Tom cut his toe in retrieving the phone.  In the future all valuables will be securely zipped into pockets.  In the future we will remember to check for items which, if lost, would leave us stranded.  We will bring a first aid kit, and Tom will not wear open-toed sandals.

No harm done.  Lessons learned.  Onward down the Grand.

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Tom Writes . . .

First leg July 24, 2016 – Source of the Grand River (Pretty much)

The Grand River is the longest river in the American state of Michigan. It starts in the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and flows north and west, to Lake Michigan.  It enters the lake less than a mile south of my family’s home in Grand Haven, Michigan. My brother Joe and I want to canoe the whole course of the Grand River, paddling downstream, from the source.

I had imagined a sunny summer day on the river, but I woke up at 6 am, and it was raining like Noah. I left my home in West Michigan before 7 am, and the rain never really let up. At the same time, Joe was driving from the eastern side of Michigan, but he did not have rain. The rain was moving from my side of the state toward the place where we were to meet, a little place called Michigan Center.

We met up there in the center. And we scouted the places where we could start to canoe. We wanted to start at “The Source” of the Grand River. However, the Grand River actually has no “Source.” I understand now, why all the famous intrepid nineteenth century British explorers had such a hard time and took so many years to find “The Source of the Nile.” The mighty Nile is just like our nowhere-near-as-mighty Grand River, at its start. No single specific “Source.”

gr truck july 24Canoe trips take a great deal of scouting and arranging. e.g. One needs to find a place to put the canoe into the water, and start. This place might be behind a convenience store, or in somebody’s back yard. There are very few Official Canoe Start Sites. Then, one needs to find a similar place downstream, to stop, and pull the canoe out.

You need to take two cars from the start spot to the gr chase vehicle july 24pull-out spot, and leave one car there. Then, you need to drive back to the start spot in the other car, launch the canoe, and paddle. After hours of paddling, you need to find the pull-out spot as viewed from the river (not always easy). And, then, load up the canoe, and head back to the start spot, to get the first car.  Is that clear? Clear as a muddy river?



gr store sign july 24Joe and I assessed the weather. Rain and lightning. We assessed a couple of pull-out spots. Dubious. So, we drove to the not-even-a-town of Liberty, Michigan. We put the canoe in at a lake known as the Mill Pond, at the Liberty General Store. We paddled the twisting length of that lake, upstream, until we grounded the canoe out on black silty mucky mud. Impossible to paddle farther upstream. We brought black silty mucky mud up into our beautiful new canoe, on our paddles, just by paddling that far.

The Mill Pond actually is lovely: Mostly covered in water lilies, with white flowers and yellow flowers and lily pads. We saw swans with their swan babies (cygnets?) and kingfishers. We probably were lucky to be there on a cloudy rainy day. I believe that place would be a big mosquito paradise on a regular sunny summer day.

So, we can say we paddled to “The Source of the Grand.” But please google the Liberty General Store. It does not have an actual web site, but if you click on the Google-provided map, it shows the Millpond, and it shows creeks leading farther upstream. I assure you, it is impossible to navigate those creeks. Joe and I really did canoe to “The Source of the Grand.”

We paddled back. In the process of pulling out the canoe, I lost my cell phone down in the mucky lake. Felt and was a fool. But! We got it back, and it still works! Thank you, Poseidon and all river gods and goddesses! I will tell that whole story some other time in some other forum.

Joe made me tie all the knots for holding the canoe onto his truck for the trip home. I worried, but he says they all held.

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IF THOSE WHO COULD, WOULD: the soul-nurturing joys of buying locally

Emma Acres produce

Lord, how I wish my father had lived long enough to experience the whole pasture-raised, grass-fed, know-your-farmer movement.  Ralph Neely was a man who knew good meat, knowledge nurtured in the family-owned butcher shops he sought out and supported in big cities like Cleveland and small towns like Stockbridge, Michigan.

Memories of my dad spring to mind unbidden after an hour spent touring Emma Acres and buying meat  from farmer Mark Skowronksi.  Emma Acres is located at 9221 Waters Rd. a mile west of Parker Rd. in Washtenaw County.  If you’re headed west on Waters and come to the one lane bridge you’ve just passed it on the left.  There’s not much of a website yet – Mark and his wife no doubt too busy farming – but they are on Facebook at!/ .

One could not be more gracious than Mark and his young daughter Emerson but Emma the Farm Dog tried.  Emma insisted that Daisy the Terrier  – who accompanied me to the farm along with her brother, Casey the Shih Tzu  – join her on a never-ending series of full-speed gallops around the 80-acre property.

I was amazed when eventually Casey, who most emphatically does NOT socialize with other dogs and descends from ancestors bred to do nothing more than sit by an Emperor’s throne and appear aloof, was won over by Emma’s insistent hospitality and climbed out of the truck to grace the others with his imperial presence.

I bought an assortment of pastured broilers, lamb and pork along with smoked kielbasa and chorizo.  Mark raises two breeds of pigs, although he’s moving toward raising only the heritage breed known as Large Black Hogs; that really is the breed’s name!  I was scared when Daisy the Terrier followed Emma the Farm Dog into the hog pen  – didn’t Anthony Hopkin’s character feed someone to the hogs in “Hannibal”? – but everything turned out alright.  Take a look at the Large Black Hogs from Emma Acres and a scene from a Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFO)somewhere in our nation’s heartland.  Which pork would you rather eat?

Hogs finished off in a CAFO, coming to a grocery store near you soon.

The night after my visit Linda and I had our best meal of the fall: a Emma Acres broiler with tiny Brussels Sprouts purchased at the Farmers’ Market and fingerling potatoes dug up at White Lotus Farms before they closed for the season.

Not everyone can afford to buy everything locally; Emma Acres meat prices are on par with Whole Foods prices.   For reasons of taste, the environment and the nurturing of my soul  I think my purchase was a bargain but I’ll guarantee you I wasn’t laying out $4.25 a pound for chicken when my kids were young and eating everything in sight.  Similarly there are consumers on fixed incomes or who are not mobile enough to visit farmers’ markets or places like Emma Acres.

But I’m convinced we could make a tremendous change in the safety of our food supply and the health of our nation if those who could, would.

Emma the Farm Dog, the Hostess with the Mostess, watching over her flock by night.

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AND A NEW LIFE IS GONNA’ BE MINE (Thank you, Marshall Tucker Band; haven’t heard that song in ages)

Back in the summer of 1977 my former father-in-law told me there’s nothing really difficult about business.  George knew business and his words stuck with me.

“You’ve got an apple tree in your backyard, see, and you need to sell the apples you grow for more than it cost you to grow them.  That’s all there is to it.”

I recall these words at a time when I need to make changes in my employment.  I manage the wine, beer and liquor departments for a large, upscale retail store.  I am very good at what I do, overseeing consistent sales growth and profits, introducing successful new products and charming the heck out of a whole lot of satisfied, repeat customers.

The problem is I no longer drink.  Wine was once my passion and I held my own discussing – and consuming – beer and liquor.  But I no longer drink.  Let that statement suffice for now.

“So what?” you ask.  “You don’t need to drink booze in order to sell it.”

“Fair enough,” I respond, “but I am likely to work another ten years and I need to have at least some passion for what I do.  Sure, I’ve got enough knowledge stored up to fake it for a decade but it would be kinder if you would just shoot me now.  Thank you in advance and please don’t lose a minute’s sleep over this; you’re doing me a huge favor.”

“Are there no opportunities for promotion within the company you currently work for, something that doesn’t involve booze?”

“Maybe, but it seems that when one reaches a certain age he or she is pigeon-holed.  Employers appear to think older employees are heading placidly for the warm milking barn that was once a comfortable retirement rather than still striving for the top.  I hear this from my co-workers and observe it myself.  One day we show up to find one of our younger colleagues promoted and we never knew there was an opening.”

“Now that’s kind of ironic,” you smugly proclaim, “a Baby Boomer whining about a lack of opportunity.  You guys have been calling the shots for a couple of decades.”

“That’s fair, too.  But there’s been a fundamental shift since the crash of 2008.  You’ve now got educated Baby Boomers competing for lower-paying jobs previously held by younger, dare I say uneducated, workers.  It will be the wise employer who acknowledges this change and takes advantage of it.  An employee who once dreamed of fishing in Florida next winter might now give an employer 5 – 10 additional years of inspired, dedicated employment . . . I see you’re getting angry; what’s wrong?”

“All hail the pampered Baby Boomers; is that it?  You’ve had your way forever and now you want to hold back Generations X, Y and Z?”

“I can see how it might look that way but you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that I’m well-intentioned while I muddle through this predicament. Throw ‘em all in together and let the cream rise, that’s what I advocate.  If a 27-year-old kicks my butt all power to him or her, but give me a chance to win, too.”

“OK, OK . . . Jesus, my head’s about to explode.  Weren’t you talking about growing apples or some damn thing?  What was that all about?”

“Thanks for bringing me back on point.  In my perfect world I’d have a small, successful business of my own.”

“What’s holding you back?”

“Nothing.  I mean, I don’t have money for a large capital investment or the technical knowledge to implement a stunning breakthrough in engineering, but it occurs to me I ought to be able to sell an apple for more than it cost me to grow it.”

“You want to sell apples?”

“Stop being so literal, for crying out loud!  That’s one of the problems with your generation.”

“OK, OK . . . what, then?”

“I’ve been in business for myself in the past and have come to accept my strengths and weaknesses.  I’m a good general manager and creative as all-get-out.  I’m not good at keeping track of how much it costs to grow an apple.”

“How are you going to get around that?”

“I’m not sure yet.  I’m still in the early innings with this whole thing.”

“If not apples, then what?”

“Maybe tee-shirts.”

“Tee-shirts, you say?  Why tee-shirts?”

“What could be less technical?  What simpler business model than well-made tee-shirts with catchy slogans selling for 20% more than they cost to produce?  I think I can turn a $16 tee-shirt into $19.99 plus shipping and handling all day long.  Heck, that’s 25%.”

“I hate to admit it but you just might have something there.  People like those damn tee-shirts; don’t they?  You know, I saw one the other day that said . . . “

Check out the Marshall Tucker Band performing ‘A New Life’ from 1974 here:

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EAT WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I ATE: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of my Youth

Two more links of ring bologna and we've got the Olympic symbol, or turn it upside down for a ring bologna heart!

At any given time I’ve got several ideas for a book floating around my mind.  Recently I’ve been trying to flesh out a book of recipes and observations centered around what those of us growing up as white, middle-class baby boomers ate from roughly 1955 – 1975, the first 20 years of my life.

 A good working title is “Eat What I Say, Not What I Ate: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of My Youth”.  Yes, I know it’s too long; that’s why it’s called a ‘working title’.

Green salads were a wedge of iceburg lettuce covered with Thousand Island or French dressing, Blue (not Bleu) Cheese being too expensive in my home.  Romaine lettuce existed only in fancy restaurants as part of a Caesar Salad and mixed greens were still somewhere over the culinary horizon.  Chicory was occasionally found in fancy coffee and maybe our Italian neighbors knew about arugula but we surely did not.

Jello – and I know I’m supposed to write Jell-O® or gelatin but the hell with it – made up a whole salad classification which no longer exists.  Plain Jello, Jello surrounding cut up fruit from a can (pears being my favorite), and  Jello somehow blended with Cool Whip for holidays.

A holiday dish containing three major food groups: Jello, canned peaches and Cool Whip.

Jello, I’m convinced, was a key component of the white middle class’s culinary and financial survival strategy.  In my household we weren’t rich and during significant stretches were closer to lower- than to upper-middle class status.  Jello was cheap, it looked nice, kids would eat it.  What more could any parent ask for?

Cholesterol concerns?  Nah; at least not until the end of that era.  Ring Bologna and Calves Liver were served regularly and just as filling as more expensive meat dishes.  I hated calves liver but always had to try at least a few bites – drowning it in catsup increased its tolerability – and now I’ll occasionally order it when out to dinner.  Go figure.  Parents cared a lot less about whether or not their kids liked a particular dish in those days, the operative philosophy being something like, “Here’s some food; don’t eat it if you don’t want to but that’s all there is.”  We usually ate enough to get through the night – there was always Jello – and our parents weren’t heartless: dads were known to look the other way while moms slipped us a small bowl of cereal or a piece of peanut butter toast before bedtime on Calves Liver Night.

Finally there was the casserole, another largely-disappeared food group now found almost solely at church potlucks.  Provided by the blue-haired widows of the congregation, there is the very real danger that the casserole recipes of my youth will be lost forever once my parents’ generation is gone.

Let us sing the praises of the casserole.  Casseroles are the perfect vehicle for using left-overs; indeed, casseroles can stretch left-overs into even more left-overs.  Casseroles are inexpensive, an important middle-class culinary survival strategy.

Most importantly, casseroles provided the balanced nutrition so vital to our intellectual and physical development.  I still marvel that one dish could provide so many servings from the basic food groups: 1 can Campbell’s Mushroom Soup (Sodium), 2 cups cubed Velveeta (Saturated Fats), French’s Shoe String Potato Sticks (Hydrogenated Oils), etc.

There was often no telling what lay beneath a casserole's cheesy exterior.

I could go on about the cuisine of my youth, but now I’d like to hear from my readers . . . both of them.  What dishes do you remember with fondness, and which with disdain?  And remember, kids: eat what I say, not what I ate.

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An excerpt from my mother, Catherine Verschoor Neely McNabb’s, writings.  She is alive and well and living in Seattle.

 I do not know how old I was that year I saw and heard the Christmas angels – – seven, eight, or even nine.  It was early on Christmas morning, before anyone was stirring.  I became conscious of the presence of angels moving up and down a staircase above the foot of my bed.  There was singing, a bubbly crystal-clear sound, and a swaying rhythm.  It gave me a sense of profound well-being and comfort, and a feeling that all was perfect in my world just then.

Later when we were having breakfast around the tree and opening our presents I sort of explored the subject to see if anyone else in the house saw or heard the angels.  Nobody picked up on my hints or gave me a lead-in on the subject of angels so I kept it always to myself.  I really did not want to expose my wonder-vision to anybody by actually talking about it, especially if no on else had the experience.  To this day I can recall the feeling I had.  Every Christmas morning still I hug it to my heart and savor it privately.  I do not think it was the dream of an over-excited child.  I think there really were angels in my bedroom that Christmas morning.

One other time in my life I have had this feeling of the nearness of a heavenly presence.  That time I felt it was God who was near me when our second son, Joey, was baptized at Central Reformed Church inGrand Rapids.  Ralph and I were standing in the pew, Joey in my arms wrapped in an embroidered yellowed wool blanket that had been around my own father when he was baptized in the same church.  Tommy, age three-and-a-half, was standing on the pew before us.  All at once I felt a lift to my heart, a suffusion of joy, and I knew God was there with us.

That was more than 50 years ago.  The feeling or vision has never reoccurred.  But it is vivid and still real.  Perhaps an opening into another world.

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COUNTRY HAM AND BLACK FRIDAY: a bit of this and a bit of that.

I had a crazy idea for next Thanksgiving: I want to raise everything at the table, including the turkey.  Looking into that now . . . where there’s a will, there’s a way.

We need a comprehensive national post office system even if it requires government subsidies and can’t be operated at a profit.  Not everything can be operated profitably.  We need to upgrade our national rail system and develop an extensive network of high-speed ‘bullet train’ passenger routes even if this can’t be accomplished solely by the private sector.

Went to the Farmers’ Market early Saturday morning looking for an outdoor project on a beautiful day, came home with a morel mushroom kit.  By 11:00 a.m. had the spot picked out, built a 4’ x 4’ cedar bed, filled the bed with homemade compost and distributed the morel spore.

Morel Mushrooms: growing in our backyard next year?

Christmas present for my father-in-law: a homemade country ham.  He’s been bemoaning the paucity of good ham for years so I decided we should make our own.  He’s coming over for pizza and ham curing tomorrow night.  Procedure described here: .

Country Hams: coming to my garage soon.

One of the criterion I will employ when deciding where to move next is whether a new location has an old-fashioned local newspaper, printed on real paper.  Our local high school football team made a good run into the state playoffs this year but I didn’t know about it because there’s no local newspaper.  I can no longer name my City Councilperson because there’s no local newspaper. Some things are essential to civilization.

This whole ‘Black Friday’ thing needs to be abolished.  How ridiculous has this become?  Somehow stores were profitable when I was a kid without resorting to Black Friday.  No one could create a system to better showcase corporate and consumer greed and crassness.  What must the rest of the world think of us?  It’s downright embarrassing.

Watch out, Granny! She's old enough to know better.

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