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Curating My Utility Drawer

Curating My Utility Drawer

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Ralph’s utility drawer
 There isn’t much you can control in this world. But when you run across something you can, no matter how inconsequential, you need to jump at the opportunity.

That’s why I spent a good hour Saturday morning cleaning up the utility drawer in our kitchen. I’m not sure everybody knows what I’m talking about, or maybe you have a different name for it, so I’ll try to explain.

Obviously, there’s the drawer where you keep your knives and forks and maybe a bottle or can opener or two. That’s not what I mean.

Then there’s another drawer for larger utensils such as cheese graters, turkey basters, mandolins, and eggbeaters. This is not to be confused with the receptacle, such as a large bowl, somewhere along the kitchen counter where you store things like whisks and spatulas for convenient access; when you need to flip an egg, for example, and time is of the essence.

We also have a slim drawer for kitchen knives; though I realize others might prefer to house them in one of those slotted knife blocks, which might actually reduce the risk of getting cut since you don’t have to stick your hand into a drawer filled with sharp objects.

Next to last – and I’m more than willing to acknowledge that every homeowner has his or her own peculiar way of organizing things – there’s that drawer devoted to products such as aluminum foil, Saran Wrap, baggies, wax paper, etc. Also the ties that come with them and seem to multiply spontaneously.

Finally, there’s the drawer I tackled Saturday morning. It’s the one where you house objects such as hammers and screwdrivers. Perhaps Duco Cement. Nails.

But it’s really a repository for anything that doesn’t fit neatly into any other category. For that reason it offers a window onto many things: such as humanity and its often ineffectual efforts to tame chaos; the level of OCD of the homeowners in question; and family history.

I can’t remember the last time I cleaned out the utility drawer. It didn’t seem that long ago. But it’s probably something you ought to do every few years. Like getting a colonoscopy when you turn fifty and at regular intervals thereafter.

What prompted me, besides the fact that I was looking for an excuse to procrastinate getting to work, is that things like the hammer, sitting atop a mound of objects such as loose batteries and scotch tape dispensers, kept jamming the drawer when I tried to slide it open.

Not to wade too far into the weeds, though I suspect I already have, but I sometimes debate whether the utility drawer is actually the proper place for items such as masking tape since it’s so bulky. Batteries, too.

But if not there, where? The problem is remembering where you moved them in some fit of pique. At least if they stay in the utility drawer, you know where to find them, even if the drawer increasingly resists your efforts to wrestle it open.

I’d just like to mention a few items I found in the drawer Saturday morning and remain there because I can’t think of any more logical place to put them: a cherub head; wooden bird callers, a spiked flower frog; finials in various shapes and sizes; a child’s marble, and an onion-domed bottle stopper reminiscent of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.

I probably found a half dozen wine corks and transferred them to the large kitchen utensil drawer. My wife may no longer be able to locate them. (Though she’s far more talented at spotting things right in front of her face than I am.) But I’m convinced that corks fall into the culinary rather than the home improvement category.

I also rid the utility drawer of perhaps twenty rusty razor blades. Razor blades pose an ongoing dilemma. You don’t want to discard them after one use. On the other hand they’re sharp objects and pose a risk if you attempt to return them to the flimsy cardboard covering they came in.

We have a couple of razor blade scrappers and holders but exchanging the blades seems a lot of dangerous effort.

By the way, we also have a slim, sectioned plastic storage tray in the drawer where I segregate screws from nails, and nails from bolts, etc. My pleasure in placing them in their proper compartment borders on the perverse.

The main source of clutter in the drawer are tools such as screwdrivers, scissors, pliers and wrenches. What turns them into a source of clutter is that over time heavy objects have a tendency to shift towards the rear of the drawer and out of sight.

So I’m forced to travel to the basement – don’t get me started on the basement, an exponentially larger organizational challenge – for replacement tools.

That helps explain why, when I cleaned up the drawer Saturday morning, I found no fewer than half a dozen pliers and as many wrenches. Some appeared as if they dated to the late 19th or early 20th century and have probably been in the family that long.

A cumbersome leather hole punch, which looked like a medieval instrument of torture, was one of the first things to go.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but marvel at these sturdy metal implements that have survived across the decades and will be around well after I’m gone. If they could talk they might offer some insight into family geneology, at least as far as its tool use was concerned. Those long departed relatives might also offer up tips on how best to organize your utility drawer.

Though I suspect that’s a skill that every generation must discover for itself.

Making Maple Syrup

Making Maple Syrup

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Ben Madey at his maple sugar house in Ghent, NY
 This wasn’t a good winter for maple syrup production. At least at our house.

We have one tap. My wife bought it at our local hardware store. It’s still sitting in the plastic bag.

We have lots of woods. But the first challenge is determining which of our trees are sugar maples and which aren’t.

We went to Tractor Supply in Hudson, New York prepared to invest in a bucket but then thought better of it.

I like maple syrup. Probably nothing goes better on pancakes and waffles. I’ve never liked maple sugar candy, however. Can’t really tell you why.

But the idea of tapping our own trees was enticing, even though the impression I have is that it’s rather labor intensive. I have this mental image of turning our kitchen into a factory with steaming vats and metal tubing and the volunteer fire department showing up when we blow up the house.

All in the service of reducing forty gallons of sap to one gallon of maple syrup. Or whatever the ratio is.

So before we did anything stupid, such as spending money on equipment, we decided to pay a visit to Ben and Veronica Madey in Ghent, New York.

The Madeys own Maple Leaf Sugaring, a certified organic maple syrup operation and they had an open house last weekend.

Wouldn’t any maple syrup be certified organic by definition? I mean, what can be more organic than tapping a tree.

But I never got around to asking that question. It probably ranked somewhere in the low four hundreds among my questions regarding establishing our own sugaring operation.

I liked Mr. Madey immediately. His day job is as a pilot for Virgin America. I appreciated him because he told us that it’s too late in the season to start tapping our trees. That let us off the hook and allowed us to better enjoy touring his operation.

It’s three years old, its “first boil” in 2015.

Even though it was a cold, rainy early spring day – the sort of day that makes you dream of the Bahamas – the sight of Maple Leaf Sugaring’s attractive sugarhouse, constructed from trees on their own property, and with white smoke billowing from vents in the roof – made you feel as if you were stepping into a Currier and Ives print.

Their property, or at least what we could see of it, had blue tubing running between the trees, their sap somehow ending back in the sugarhouse.

Mr. Madey, who couldn’t have been friendlier when we told him of our own maple syrup dreams, explained how the operation worked. But I lost him at “Hello.”

The strong impression I got as he explained concepts such as pumps and evaporators and reverse osmosis is that it helps to be a transcontinental airline pilot, or at least somebody who understands mechanics, if you want to get into the maple sugaring business.

I don’t. Whenever I manage to hammer a nail in straight I’m ready to declare victory and call it quits for the day.

Mr. Mabey, who grew up locally, said his is the largest maple sugaring operation in Columbia County with a little over 4,000 taps. Those include 1,400 on his own property and the remainder among neighbors who truck their sap over to his gleaming wood-fired evaporator to be processed.

That gave me an idea. Instead of tapping our own trees perhaps the maple syrup magnate would care to pay a visit to our place to see whether it had syrup and money-making potential. He could start by helping us distinguish the sugar maples from all the other maples, not to mention our oaks, willows and evergreens.

Mr. Mabey agreed to drop by at some point and we got into an animated conversation about the economics of maple syrup production. Turns out New York State is the largest producer after Quebec and Vermont.

I wasn’t so crass as to ask whether he turns a profit, though I didn’t get the impression he was planning to turn in his pilot’s wings any time soon. “We all have our hobbies on the side,” he told us. “This became more than a hobby.”

He said that were our woods to pass muster – he’d do any inventory of our tress to see whether they offered a sufficient density of sugar maples – perhaps we’d sign a ten-year lease and get half the syrup to pour over pancakes or sell.

But he said the main attraction to the homeowner is the tax breaks for turning fallow forest into income producing agricultural land. He sited a property owner on Lake Placid, an extreme example Mr. Mabey admitted, who was able to reduce his tax burden from $12,000 annually to less than $2,000 by tapping his trees.

He also assured us that if we didn’t like the sight of bright blue tubing it also came in earth tones, or at least colors that might more effortlessly blend into the landscape.

In the meantime, we purchased a quart of maple syrup and an 8-ounce jar of maple cream. I have a hunch that in the short run, as well as the long run, buying it by the bottle may be the most economically prudent way to go.

A Hudson Wine Tasting

A Hudson Wine Tasting

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Phil Sareil leading a wine tasting at Hudson Wine Merchants

One of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had lately was a Saturday evening wine tasting at Hudson Wine Merchants. They’re on Warren Street in Hudson, NY.

Here’s how much fun it was: I don’t drink wine and I still had a good time.

I know. I know. Not drinking wine is a character flaw. My family, all devoted wine drinkers, remind me all the time. And when I confess my secret to friends they explain, feeling sad for me, that I’m missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.

I’ve given much thought to what’s wrong with me. The only explanation I can come up with is that I possess the taste buds of an eight-year-old.

I love Coke and candy. That includes chocolate and bubble gum. And I’m always on the prowl for the perfect chocolate cake. The thicker the icing the better.

To me wine tastes like vinegar.

It also makes me tired. On the other hand, Scotch or vodka, preferably with a beer chaser, energizes me.

That’s not to say I can’t tell good wine from bad. Generally speaking. Many years ago I shared a bottle of wine with my cousin on a trip to Burgundy. I still remember the wine and the year – a 1976 Volnay Clos des Ducs.

Suddenly, I realized what all the fuss was about. This wine – it was only a half bottle and even expensive in Seventies dollars, or rather French francs – was a lot more than a beverage. It was like a trip to the lush alien world of Pandora in the movie Avatar. The one with the bioluminescent plants that spoke to each other or whatever they did.

This wine unfolded in stages, each different and more interesting than the previous one. It was like a rose blossoming on your tongue.

Nothing else has measured up since. So I arrived at the Hudson Wine Merchants tasting with my wife prepared to be disappointed and probably bored, too.

But the atmosphere was festive.  Guests were seated at several long tables in owner Michael Albin and Marienne Courville’s third floor gallery overlooking Warren Street. There were also plates of cheese and pates supplied by Talbott & Arding. They’re excellent cheese mongers, also on Warren Street.

So you couldn’t help but keep an open mind.

The tasting was devoted to seven natural wines. That means wines made with a minimal amount of chemicals and additives. They all came from the wine regions of Austria and Moravia in the Czech Republic.

This didn’t sound especially promising, especially to a philistine such as me. But I was intrigued by our first bottle, a Strohmeier Schilcher Frizzante.

Even though it didn’t look or taste like any wine I’d ever had.

For starters, it was orange. Also it was carbonated. In fact, it bore almost as much resemblance to beer as to wine. Which was fine with me.

Our guide throughout the evening was Phil Sareil of Jenny & Francois Selections, the wines’ importers.

My other problem with wine tastings is that I feel inadequate because I can’t detect the flavor notes everybody else seems to be picking up. You know. Persimmon, coffee, cinnamon, eye of newt, a gentle spring breeze quaking the leaves of aspens in the Tetons.

But Mr. Sareil was a great tour guide. He described the wines and the vineyards they came from with such knowledge – even the soil conditions in different locations in particular vineyards – that it made me want to consider the possibility of switching careers. To one where travel to scenic locales and the consumption of alcohol are job requirements.

Our next selection was a couple of whites from the same area. They came decorated with colorful Mark Rothko-like abstract expressionist labels.

Mr. Sareil explained that the yellow and green label on the 2014 Muster, a light wine, signified that its grapes were harvested from the top of the hill in owner Maria and Sepp Muster’s 10 hectare pesticide-free vineyard in Styria.

That’s a mountainous area of southern Austria.

The yellow and brown label on the 2012 Muster Graf meant it came from the bottom of the hill.

Or maybe I have that upside down.

In any case, both were excellent, the Graf more complex than the Muster.

See, I’m already starting to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

If you’re anything like me, you’re more than occasionally influenced to make a purchase by the attractiveness of the label.

So I didn’t know what to make of our final selection – a 2013 Gut Oggau Josephine.

It came with a drawing of Josephine.

Not Napoleon’s wife, the first empress of France. But a contemporary figure who looked like she might have an interesting inner life.

“They created a fictional family of characters,” Mr. Sareil explained.

He was referring to the owners of the biodynamic vineyard by Lake Neusiedl straddling the Austrian-Hungarian border. “They realized wine had really strong personalities.”

I’m not sure the evening convinced me to switch permanently from my dependable single malt scotch to the wines of Styria.

But it did underscore wine as a life-affirming force that promotes friendship and conversation. That alone is worth the price of a bottle or two. And a couple of hours on a winter evening.

A Visit From a Bear

A Visit From a Bear

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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I was planning to devote this commentary to snow. As I write we’re anticipating a foot or more in the Hudson Valley and a blizzard in New York City. Though given our wacky weather by the time we air it might be eighty and sunny.

But on my way to celebrating the magic of snow – it’s something I never take for granted and don’t understand those who complain as if were just another commuter nightmare – I got waylaid by another natural phenomenon: bears.

In short, I woke us this morning to find most of my bird feeders trashed.

The sturdy metal pole supporting one of them was bent to the ground. Two expensive but beautiful egg-shaped ceramic feeders, one red the other purple, were smashed to smithereens. And the copper parts of another feeder were contorted and its heavy plastic cylinder, which held sunflower seeds, was broken. But even more impressive was that the metal arm that supported it had been ripped straight off the tree where it was hanging.

Isn’t it a bit early in the season for bears to be causing mischief? Aren’t they still supposed to be hibernating?

But even more impressive is that we live in a part of the Hudson Valley not given to many bear sightings. In fact, I’ve only seen a bear once since I started visiting my grandparents here in the late 1950’s.

That was about twenty years ago when my wife spotted it on our tree line and I came running. The mid-summer visitor was a handsome and healthy looking black bear that had apparently discovered our compost pile.

When he saw me he lumbered off, casting a casual glance over his shoulder, and kept going.

Unfortunately, this visit came in the middle of the night. Actually, that’s incorrect. I now realize that what I thought was the sound of a light bulb breaking around 10 p.m. – I was in our living room reading the newspaper, and while I considered the sound unusual I was too lazy to investigate – was the bear smashing one of the ceramic feeders.

If I’d simply stood up, rather than continuing to read a story in the New York Times about the discovery in a Cairo slum of a buried 26-foor statue suspected to be a likeness of Pharaoh Ramses II, interesting though the account was, I would have gotten to see the marauder and also probably limited much of his, or her, damage.

My wife went to bed early and also missed the action. But the next morning, as I surveyed the destruction in the frigid air, I wasn’t the only one who realized that something, if not phenomenal, at least out of the ordinary had occurred.

Our dog sniffed at the ground with even more curiosity than usual, as if appreciating that the trespasser was a different order of magnitude than her perennial nemesis – a flying squirrel that visits the copper feeder, now lying in parts on the frozen earth.

Most interesting of all were the birds. They flocked to the feeders, or what was left of them, in profusion. Attracted to all the spilled seed that the bear had missed, now scattered on the ground.

I even spotted my first red-winged blackbird of the season, joining the mourning doves, blue jays and juncos at breakfast.

There was something almost joyous about their behavior. If the bear’s visit constituted an attack, then the birds were like doctors and nurses suturing the wound, the healing process already underway.

I’ve heard stories about bears attacking bird feeders. But I was always smug because, as I said, we don’t get many bears around here, and also because I remove the feeders come Memorial Day so they’re not around to attract the predators during the summer.

The incident gave rise to two questions. Will the bear be back – I managed to right the bent pole feeder (more or less) and can repair the copper one – and should I invest in new ceramic feeders?

Was the bear just passing through or has he added our property to his list of menu options?

Perhaps I’ll wait a while to replace the pricey ones, painful though their absence will be. Just in case the animal returns.

But you can’t live in fear. And whatever damage he may have caused is far outweighed by the presence of all those birds that cleaned up after his visit.

I’d tend to be angry if anybody else had caused such damage. Instead, I’m mildly elated at the bear’s house call. It served as a relatively economical reminder that it’s never shrewd to be complacent in the face of nature. And also that I’m lucky to live someplace where unforeseen encounters with wildlife can still occur.

A Taste of Poland

A Taste of Poland

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

 

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A nation’s museums and monuments, parks and restaurants aren’t the only things that interest me on vacations abroad. I also love visiting their supermarkets.

You can tell a lot about a place by how they stock their shelves and also by their shoppers’ etiquette.

For example, a Swiss supermarket is a study in politeness, no matter how busy. However, one in Italy tends to be an exercise in chaos – not necessarily the aisles filled with pasta and olive oils – but the way shoppers feel little compunction about running you over with their carts. Surreptitiously cutting in line is also something of an art form.

Polish markets seem to more closely resemble those in Switzerland than Italy. I’ve never been to Poland but I believe I can speak with some authority because I did the next best thing. I visited Hudson Polish Delicatessen. It’s an authentic Polish food store on Fairview Avenue in Hudson, New York.

I’d heard about the place, but it wasn’t really on my radar until someone sang its praises at a recent dinner party. So on a visit to Lowe’s or maybe Wal-Mart (possibly both) I decided to try to find the deli.

In fact, the trip to those big box stores only accentuated the Polish Delicatessen’s charms when I finally found it.

It’s recessed about seventy-five feet or so behind a jewelry shop, as if to rise above the strip mall fray. The location also adds to one’s sense of discovery.

And as soon as you enter you feel as if you’ve arrived at another world. It’s one of owner Margaret Golebiowski’s creation: from the imported Polish wool vests for sale to the deli case filled with half a dozen different kinds of kielbasa – kielbasa with garlic, pickled kielbasa, juniper kielbasa, Polish beer kielbasa.

There’s also Hunter’s sauerkraut, a tasty concoction that the owner makes herself and that includes almost as much sausage as sauerkraut. And golombki – stuffed cabbage – that Ms. Golebiowski (I apologize if I’m mispronouncing her name) told me is also a bestseller.

You’d have to judge a trip to any farm or food store a success if it adds a new staple to your diet. I’ve found one in the Hudson Polish deli’s veal-pork wieners. I’ve always liked weisswurt, those pale veal sausages. These links manage to blend the delicacy of weisswurst with the smokiness of frankfurters.

Our dog Wallie can also attest to the sausages delights. She snatched one off the counter while it was defrosting.

The question is whether to serve them with a simple salad or perhaps pierogis, the filled dumplings, that the store stocks in abundant variety. Sausages plus pierogis might be overkill, however.

Ms. Golebiowski, who moved to the United States with her husband Slavek in the early 1980’s, told me she’s been open for about two-and-a-half years. Business is good though she thought she’d have more Polish customers. The majority are Americans of Polish heritage.

I’m not Polish or Polish-American. Neither is Maura Rose, a shopper who came all the way from Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Traveling to Hudson from Great Barrington – a trip of approximately 45 minutes – may not be as extreme as, saying, flying to Vienna for Sacher Torte. But it may suggest something that with gourmet food destinations such as Guido’s in her backyard, Ms. Rose thinks that the Hudson Polish deli is worth the journey.

And as enticing as the deli counter are the shelves stocked with authentic Polish products. (Forgive me if I sound like an ad, but enthusiasm in the service of my taste buds is no vice.)

For example, Polish Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Ms. Golebiowski claimed it tastes different than its American cousin. She gave me a taste. She was right.

It’s sweeter and more complex than the American version. But not too sweet. Sort of like Miracle Whip dressed up in a jacket and tie.

And you can’t beat the prices. An 11-ounce jar of cherry jam is $3.59. A large bottle of raspberry or strawberry fruit syrup goes for an affordable $6.49.

Ms. Golebiowski directed me towards other products that I might have overlooked on my own. Such as pickled celery root and shredded red beets and pepper salad.

And now I have no choice but to return, and not just to restock on veal and pork sausage. Ms. Rose, the Great Barrington customer, singled out the delights of Polish chocolate and directed me towards one of her favorites – plums covered in chocolate.

Who knew the Poles made great chocolate, too?

Catching Mice

Catching Mice

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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One of the secrets to success as a newspaper columnist, or probably a radio commentator for that matter – and no, it’s not having something to say – is self-deprecation. Because the question will eventually arise, “What gives you the right to mouth off?”

The short answer is “Nothing.”

So I’m going out on a limb here by boasting about a recent accomplishment. And I can’t point to many.

It was eliminating the mouse problem at our house in Columbia County.

Perhaps a bit of background is in order.

For years, and despite having a national pest control company on the payroll — you’d recognize their name immediately – we were overrun by mice. Or should I say we shared our abode with mice because I realize there will be listeners who believe they have as much right to a fine home as we do.

Just to give one example. There was a large rug I inherited. It came over from the Old Country and might actually be worth something. At least it was until our mice got wind of it.

When I unrolled it recently, finally ready to put it to use, I found a long, clean hole in it, approximately the shape of Manhattan Island, if slightly smaller in size. The mice had apparently determined that it made dream nesting material.

The rodents made their presence felt in other ways, too. The house, like any house, has its peculiar odors, some more pleasant than others. One that falls into the questionable category, and that I’ve been aware of since I started visiting my grandparents here — they bought the place in the late 1940’s – is the more than occasional smell in the walls and floorboards of decomposing mouse.

The aforementioned national pest control company addressed, and no doubt contributed to the problem by placing mouse poison and glue traps in the basement and other strategic locations around the house.

It seemed to have no discernable effect on the mouse population except for causing the occasional victim to perish in an inaccessible location. In fact, the rodents got so boisterous and full of themselves that they’d wake me up in the middle of the night with their house parties in our attic. Though they could also have been squirrels, a different pest.

So I eventually decided to take the matter into my own hands.

Perhaps a little more background is in order. I grew up in New York City. I probably come from fifty generations of apartment dwellers who don’t know anything about home maintenance. Their solution to any problem is to pick up the phone and hire somebody to fix it.

Domestic chores, especially those I can accomplish on my own without injury, are a recent and wondrous thing. They fill me with pride and a stark sense of well-being.

For example, I love to mow our lawn, even making novel patterns in the grass. That’s undoubtedly because it was never a chore I was required to perform as a kid.

So I decided to address the mouse problem on my own by recalling the wisdom of that popular philosopher Scott Evil. If the name doesn’t exactly ring a bell, Scott was the chip-off-the-old-block son of Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr. Evil, in that excellent 1997 film, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

When Austin and his beautiful secret agent colleague, Vanessa Kensington, are captured while trying to infiltrate his headquarters, Dr. Evil tells Scott, “I’m going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.”

That reminds me of our pest control company’s strategy against our mice.

To which Scott offers a more common-sensical approach: a gun.

For the record, I take no pleasure in killing mice. They’re cute little creatures. But it seems to me a fast death is more humane than a slow one.

I even consulted with an expert on the subject, if somewhat after the fact – Robert Voss, a curator in the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Voss has a particular expertise in marsupials and rodents.

He suggested a house cat.

There’s a couple of reasons why that wouldn’t have worked. For starters, I’m allergic to cats. Also, as Dr. Voss noted, not all cats are created equal when it comes to battling rodents.

“We’ve had cats that are completely inept,” he reported. “Just because you have a house cat doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good at catching mice.”

So I went to Mario’s True Value, my local hardware store in Valatie, New York, and purchased several old-fashioned mousetraps and filled them with cheese. Thus far, none of my adversaries have made it beyond the basement.

And the house has never smelled fresher.

My next goal is learn how to use a snake to unclog our drains. It seems only a matter of time until I’m ready to build a deck.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found atralphgardner.com

The Soul of a Cat

The Soul of a Cat

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio (2.24.17)

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Only once did a walk in the woods upstate disappoint me. It happened in the spring of 2015 shortly after my family and I returned from a safari in Botswana.

After following a herd of elephants across the Okavango Delta or watching a lion sip at a watering hole at sunset, the chance that you might run across a white-tailed deer doesn’t seem all that remarkable.

Of course, the deciduous forests of the Hudson Valley have their advantages. The likelihood of getting eaten alive during an afternoon stroll is pretty small.

Our trip to Botswana occurred under the auspices of Beverly and Dereck Joubert, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and Emmy award-winning filmmakers. The Jouberts also run Great Plains Conservation, an organization that manages several wildlife reserves in Botswana and Kenya.

Where should I begin with the Jouberts? They recently played a role in persuading China to shut down its ivory trade. And through “Rhinos Without Borders,” a program they started in 2015, they’re well on their way to saving almost 100 of the prehistoric looking creatures by airlifting them from South Africa to Botswana where they’re safer from poachers.

The Jouberts reported that the rhinos are flourishing in their new homes. They’ve already had four calves in the wild and three females are pregnant.

However, the couple’s major effort is something called The Big Cats Initiative. They’re trying to draw the world’s attention to the fact that lion populations have decreased from 450,000 to just 20,000 over the last half-century.

I like to get together with them whenever they’re in New York, typically once or twice a year, to learn how they’re trying to save the planet and whether there’s anything I can do to help.

Their latest work is called “Soul of the Cat.” Airing on Nat Geo Wild, it explores the similarities between the kiddie you have at home and their much larger cousins in the wild.

“The entire premise of the film,” Dereck told me, “is that this little cat is doing all of the same stuff as the big cat did. The only difference is scale. So if little cats were as big as big cats we’d be in big trouble.”

The hope is that if people see the similarities they’ll serve as ambassadors to save the big cats.

But that led me to a question. Do people actually have pets, such as dogs and cats, in the bush?

Dereck explained that dogs, in particular, aren’t a good idea. “Because when you go walking in the bush,” he said, “you know how dogs tend to run ahead and scare up things? If they scare up a lion or a leopard, they then come running back and you’re left to deal with the angry lion or leopard.”

Cats, their similarities to big cats aside, don’t fare much better. It’s not like a lion looks at a house cat and sees a long lost relative. It sees lunch. “In fact,” Dereck said, “my sister-in-law went out in the morning and found her favorite cat hanging in the fork of a tree in the paws of a leopard.”

The pet didn’t last long.

The Jouberts have a policy against intervening in nature, let alone befriending wild animals. But sometimes contact can’t be avoided. For example, the zebra they adopted after somebody dropped it off at camp.

“That didn’t end well,” Dereck recalled. “It took a shine to Beverly and hated me. It would get in between us and try to kick me to pieces.”

Then there was the warthog that took a liking to the couple. That didn’t end well either.

“He overstayed his welcome,” Beverly remembered. “One evening as he was going back – the rest of the family left earlier – we heard this almighty squeal and a lion pride took him out on his way back to his little hole.”

However, because the Jouberts have that hands-off approach, elephants frequently stroll through their camps and baboons use the tents as trampolines.

And then there was the black mamba they discovered under their refrigerator. The venomous snake cohabited with them for six months and actually helped them maintain a healthy lifestyle because they thought twice about raiding the fridge for midnight snacks.

Nonetheless, the Jouberts acknowledge there’s something wonderful when animals use their camps for their own comfort and safety. For example, the elephant who turned their front steps into a king-size bed because that made it easier for him to rise in the morning. Apparently, elephants have a hard time getting to their feet from a lying position. The only issue was that the pachyderm had a snoring problem.

Lately, the couple has been filming meerkats, members of the mongoose family. “If you stay very still,” Beverly told me, “all of a sudden they climb up on top of you and use you as a vantage point to see if there’s any predators out there.”

She admitted she loves those moments. “They’re incredibly blissful,” she said. “Euphoric in every way.”

A Walk In The Woods

A Walk In The Woods

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio (aired 2.18.17)

CLICK HERE FOR AUDIO ( 4:16)

Here’s a suggestion for unsettling times: take a walk in the woods. I notice I’ve been doing a lot more of that lately.

However, my personality is the sort that needs to be accomplishing something. I never head outdoors without a pair of binoculars slung around my neck; just in case there’s a bird to identify or some beautiful wild animal, such as a deer or bobcat, to observe from a distance.

For the record, I haven’t spotted any bobcats lately. But the anticipation that I might is part of what pries me away from CNN.

I recently found an even more proactive way to honor nature – by putting up trail makers along the paths that wend through our woods.

I’ll freely admit the idea is a folly. Our place is in Columbia County, not the wilds of Alaska; besides it’s unlikely I’d get lost on my own property. But the concept came to me when we visited our daughter Gracie at college in Ohio and I noticed the school’s nature preserve had very tasteful trail markers.

So I figured if a small liberal arts college, or Yosemite National Park for that matter, can have signs to help you better navigate nature while simultaneously reassuring yourself that you’re not straying into grizzly bear country, why not my place?

After much deliberation about what the design might look like – we batted around ideas such as an owl or our dog Wallie (if Wallie ever stopped long enough to sit for a portrait) I commissioned my older daughter Lucy to draw a pileated woodpecker.

 

Lucy has a talent for painting birds and the results were elegant: A diamond shaped trail marker featuring the stunning black, white and red woodpecker against a black-bordered white background.

Unfortunately, the cost of making a couple hundred durable copies of the sign turned out to be prohibitively expensive.

So as a Christmas gift, Lucy surprised me with a stencil along with cans of red, white and black spray paint.

Conceptually, this was a brilliant idea. Except that in practice, applied to the ruddy bark of an oak or a maple, the results looked more like an Abstract Expressionist drip painting than a trail marker.

So, after finding a local gentleman who was willing to saw a giant sheet of plywood into almost 300 four by four inch pieces, I set to work painting the squares, or diamonds (depending on how you turn them) bright red.

Just painting them in our basement and letting them dry over night was therapeutic, though not half as much as heading into the woods with a tote bag filled with a stack of them, a hammer and nails.

One probably wouldn’t think that trail markers could stir controversy. But Debbie, my wife, was concerned that my mine would be as much a violation of nature as electronic billboards.

Her fear was that I’d overdo it, that I’d hammer one every ten feet. I’ll admit that’s a temptation but I’ve tried to restrain myself.

My main interest here, besides marking my territory — because I suppose that’s what it really boils down to — is explaining, if only for myself, how the woods and nature serves as a refuge in challenging times.

For starters, it connects you to something larger than yourself. It reminds you we’re part of a bigger picture, small figures in a monumental landscape painting, not the whole thing. Which you could be mistaken for believing if you allow your life to be run by the ever-accelerating cadences of humankind — invested in celebrating our own importance and indispensability — rather than those of the natural world.

Hammering a red square into every fiftieth tree may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, or even the best way to honor the forest, but it’s been working for me.

And Debbie even appears pleasantly surprised by the results. She agrees I haven’t overdone it, that my trail markers lend a friendly, reassuring tone to a walk in the woods.

My latest innovation is double diamonds to denote where trails fork. I think I’ll resist the temptation to mark different routes with different color markers, though my spouse is talking about a trail map.

I haven’t completely given up my dream of pileated woodpeckers, though. Currently Lucy and I are in discussions over the feasibility of adding woodpecker decals.

 

Valentine’s Candy

Valentine’s Candy

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio (aired 2.11.17)

CLICK HERE FOR AUDIO ( 4:24)

I’ve got a confession to make. I buy Valentine’s candy. For myself.

No, of course I’m not talking about those large, red velvety, heart-shaped boxes filled with assorted chocolates.

I purchase those for my wife and daughters. And I buy local, by the way. At Vasilow’s an old-time candy store in Hudson, NY.

But if I did acquire for personal consumption a box bursting with raspberry crèmes, sea salt caramels, and chocolate covered cashews, so what? Who came up with the dorky notion that the bounty of Valentine’s Day should be reserved for the female sex?

I respected the gesture when my father came home with a large Valentine’s heart for my mother. But I’d have respected it even more if he’d remembered my younger brothers and me. That would have staunched the guilt of stealing my mother’s chocolate — a notorious sweet tooth she was, and still is — when she wasn’t looking.

No, the Valentine’s candy I buy myself are those over-the-counter chocolate covered marshmallow, caramel, and fudge hearts you can find at your local supermarket.

In fact, I risked mortification yesterday when I found the aisle where they stock holiday candies blocked by a burly deliveryman.

(By the way, a gentle hint that you can do with whatever you want: even though Easter is two months off and the marshmallow Peeps have yet to arrive, the Cadbury Crème Eggs are already in and they’ll never be any fresher than they are right now.)

I was afraid the delivery man might make some crack when I squeezed past him to reach the shelves bursting with Reese’s Valentine’s Peanut Butter hearts, pink and white M&M’s, Valentine’s Tootsie Pops, and Brach’s Tiny Conversation Hearts candies (you know, the kind printed with messages such as “Sweet Thing” and “Hugs and Kisses.”)

Fortunately, he kept his mouth shut. And I’d like to reiterate that I limit myself to those aforementioned foil-wrapped hearts. And never more than one or two, or three maximum, on any supermarket run.

Curiously, I never purchase seasonal candy the day after the holiday, whatever the holiday happens to be, when supermarkets and drug stores slash their prices.

It’s not as if they’re any less fresh than they were the day before. I suspect they’re so shot with preservatives they’d taste exactly the same next Valentine’s Day.

It must be that, despite my chocolate addiction, I’m just as much a sucker for Cupid’s punch as the next guy, or typically gal.

But my wife recently came up with a more manly way for me to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Fudge sauce!

If chocolate is your thing, there’s no more potent delivery system than hot fudge.

The problem is the wide variety in quality, and all those products masquerading as fudge sauce that are actually, quote, “toppings.” You need to read the label carefully. There’s no substitute for the all-natural real thing.

Indeed, my belief is that there’s as much variety, as many flavor notes, in an excellent fudge sauce as there is in a fine Bordeaux.

My favorite locally is Mother Myrick’s homemade hot fudge sauce out of Manchester, Vermont. Chatham, NY’s Blue Plate restaurant also makes an intense hot fudge sauce that they sell by the jar.

My first exposure to this culinary delight probably came at the Schrafft’s restaurant chain.

No life form is more ravenous than the average 12-year-old after a day at school. So I’d go to Schrafft’s and treat myself to a sundae. My mouth waters all these decades later when I remember the experience.

But that’s the thing about hot fudge. It’s Proustian. It makes you realize that you never completely leave childhood behind. And all it takes to retrieve it is a syrup of sugar, chocolate, butter, salt and vanilla extract heated in a microwave.

Among the other things I do to embarrass my spouse is when I order hot fudge sundaes at restaurants and tell them to hold the ice cream, at least the majority of it. And if it’s not too much trouble could they bring an extra helping of hot fudge on the side.

Which is why you should always have some at home. So you don’t have to humiliate yourself in public.

I’d go so far as to argue that hot fudge ought to be as much a staple in your refrigerator as a container of excellent sour pickles.

It’s the condiment for all seasons. But if you need to hide behind a holiday, Valentine’s Day will certainly do.

Mary Tyler Moore and Rich Conaty

Mary Tyler Moore and Rich Conaty

Sometimes you don’t understand what a person meant to you until he or she is gone.

That happened to me twice over the last couple of weeks. The first occasion was when I learned that Mary Tyler Moore had passed away. The second time it was Rich Conaty, a DJ on WFUV, Fordham University’s noncommercial radio station.

Both of them impacted my life at different times but in altogether pleasant ways.

Let’s start with Ms. Moore, who I associate with the flu. And I say that in the nicest way.

I feel I got to know her when she played housewife Laura Petrie on the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” I’d watch it on morning reruns on the occasions when I was home sick from school, knowing that hours of uninterrupted TV viewing lay ahead.

The weekday morning lineup back in the mid-Sixties included Leave It To Beaver, Candid Camera, The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy of Mayberry, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

And those were just the sitcoms. It was an embarrassment of riches. There were also a half dozen game shows to choose from. Among them The Price is Right, Concentration, Jeopardy, and Truth or Consequences.

But of all of them I think The Dick Van Dyke Show was the most sophisticated, the one whose sensibility served as a model for the way you’d want to grow up and the kind of world you’d want to live in.

Humor was its guiding ethos. For example, in the dysfunctional relationship between Rob Petrie, Mr. Van Dyke’s character as a TV writer, and Alan Brady, the preening star who employed him. Carl Reiner, who created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” played Alan Brady.

But the stresses of an overbearing boss were soothed by Rob and Laura’s affectionate marriage. And its undercurrent of love and romance despite Dick Van Dyke’s klutzy pratfalls. Nobody – not even a twelve-year-old running a fever – could fail to notice that Mary Tyler Moore was a really good-looking mom. And one with impeccable comic timing.

I came to appreciate Rich Conaty in more recent years. His show, “The Big Broadcast,” where he played music from the 1920s and 1930’s, ran on WFUV Sunday nights from 8 pm until midnight.

We’d be returning to the city from upstate with our children around that time of the evening. Usually somewhere along the West Side Highway when he lowered the needle on his theme song, Fats Waller’s “You Meet the Nicest People In Your Dreams.”

The four of us would sing along at the top of our lungs, though I’m not going to insult your eardrums by doing so now: “I’ve looked the universe over,” the song went, “from wacky Nagasaki to Dover, and now that we have met how sweet it seems. I love you more the more I know you. Which only goes to show you. You meet the nicest people in your dreams.”

I never met Rich, who was originally from Astoria but lived in Hudson, NY. But I understand he was hard to miss behind the wheel of his beloved 1950 Nash Ambassador.

I did, however, contact him once to ask whether he had any information about, “I’m Not Too Sure of My L’Amour” a 78 — that’s rpms — from the 1940’s by Ray McKinley and his Orchestra.

I discovered it in a stack of records that probably belonged to either my parents or grandparents. I was impressed with its randy humor.

If you’ll indulge me again, I’d like to share just one of its stanzas: “My brother John is my twin. So I asked my girlfriend with a grin. How can you tell which one you’re kissing. Brother John or I? And she said, “Baby, I don’t even try.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Conaty knew nothing of the song or Ray McKinley, perhaps because it was outside of his time frame.

But in his area of expertise his knowledge seemed total. And the way he offered the dates of long dead songwriters, singers and bandleaders before he played their music, sounded like an incantation.

When he died of cancer at the age of 63, he’d hosted over 2,200 shows starting when he was a freshman at Fordham in 1973.

After providing just enough background, he’d cue the song, the voices of  Bing Crosby, Al Jolsen or Cab Calloway, sending us back in time.

I particularly appreciated it when we pulled up to the stop light at 96th Street and Broadway, the music filling our car providing the perfect soundtrack to the crowds of pedestrians crossing the street. It was the kindest way to slip back into the city after a weekend in the country.