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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Block Party

Dedicated to my dear friend, Shirley (The Squirrel) Martin

     The squirrels in our neighborhood had babies this spring - many babies. At first they were cute. Aren’t all babies cute? They’re also smarter than their parents, because it didn’t take them long to learn how to climb up the shepherd’s hook, position themselves on top of my squirrel-proof bird feeder, and hang upside down to help themselves to all the sunflower seeds they can stuff into their little squirrel mouths, without touching the perches. 
     A squirrel-proof feeder is cleverly designed with little doors that slam shut when anything heavier than a bird lands on its perches, thus cutting off access to the seeds. It’s a wonderful invention, and until this year, it worked like magic. Squirrels would climb up the pole and reach over, grab the perch, and wham! The door would close in their little squirrel faces. Score one for the birds.
     Not so this year. I tried putting out corn for them. They’re supposed to prefer it to seeds, but they just eat it all up and then hit the feeder. They also raid the suet cage but it's too much trouble for them. After all, they have an open banquet at the feeder. I constantly refill the water station. Like the rest of us, they are no doubt trying to stay hydrated in this heat. 
     The regulars in my backyard—cardinals, titmice, chickadees, finches and wrens—are naturally intimidated by the squirrels, so they only eat when the squirrels are taking a nap or whatever they do when they’re not feeding their faces. 
     Make no mistake, Honey has been doing her part, patrolling from her station on the deck and chasing the little rodents back up in the trees where they belong. It’s a new pastime for her, squirrel chasing. She took it up just after her 13th birthday, but even with her help, the squirrels have been running rampant.
     I imagine them having block parties, inviting all their little squirrel friends from around the neighborhood to my back yard, cavorting about in little squirrel party hats and drinking little squirrel cosmopolitans. I can see them lounging on the deck chairs, smoking little squirrel cigars and sipping from little squirrel brandy snifters. I picture them dealing little bridge hands with little squirrel cards, bidding grand slams and snacking from little squirrel nut dishes.
     I know what you’re thinking. I should have installed a baffle the minute I realized my squirrels were party animals. But I hesitated, not wanting the ruin the esthetic of my back yard. A baffle looks like a Coolie hat. It’s attached to the pole and designed to keep squirrels from climbing up to the feeder. The most effective ones are made of slick metal, which keeps the squirrels from getting any traction should they land on top of it. Some of them can jump eight feet straight off the ground. The idea of an ugly baffle just didn’t sit right. So, I spent way too much time shooing them off my feeder and calling them dirty words.
     The coup de grace came when, day before yesterday, I realized they were inviting their cousins over to the house. I looked out to see a gray rat, about six inches long with a tail twice that length, hanging from the seed window, bypassing the perch altogether and eating sunflower seeds by the handful.
     Oh, no, no no, no, no! A squirrel is one thing, a rat quite another. Not even I, who sometimes question my own sanity, would let a rat find a ready food source in my back yard. I was off to Ace Hardware, where laid down $31.09 for a big, ugly baffle made of slick black metal. I drove home and attached it to the pole. A screwdriver was all I needed to install it.
     I went back inside the house, positioned myself at the window and watched to see what would happen. The birds immediately returned. A trio of squirrels gathered around the base of the feeder, scavenging the seeds birds inevitably drop. They seemed to be getting plenty to eat. After only a few minutes, one of them wrapped his little squirrel paws around the pole and began climbing. When he was within about a foot of the baffle, he looked up, and seeing nothing but black, jumped down. 
     Victory! The same squirrel gave it two more tries before giving up. The others seemed to have, intuitively I guess, learned from him and didn’t even give it a go.

     Birds: 10
     Squirrels and rats: 0
     I’ll let you know when the little bastards figure out a way around it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Positive Negativity

     Monday night, just after sundown and as the Strawberry Moon was rising, Gretchen and I made our way down the boardwalk at Massengale Beach. The high tide that coincided with the full moon and summer solstice was washing against the steps and sliding in to lick at the dunes. The moon’s reflection on the water showcased brilliant whitecaps, sparkling evidence of the power of the ocean. A couple and their two children wading in the shin-deep water were buffeted around by the oncoming waves.
     A cool onshore wind blew salt air into our faces as we settled onto the deck and organized our modest picnic of steamed shrimp and wine. Blanket and chair situated, I opened the wine and filled our glasses. We turned our faces to the moon and breathed in negative ions, the invisible, feel-good molecules so abundant in water environments, especially the ocean, where waves stir up the water, releasing the ions into the air. When we breathe them in, negative ions increase levels of serotonin in our brains, which in turn boosts mood and helps relieve stress. If you ever needed an excuse to go to the beach, now you have it.
     As the moon rose, its reflection on the water grew wide, and the night was bright with it. We soaked up the moonbeams, talking and snacking and, well, just being in the moment, fully present for the most part, while the experience washed over us and took with it most of our consciousness of anything else. We lingered late, and as the tide began to recede, I climbed down the stairs and stood in the surf and wiggled my toes. I don’t remember being any happier without Clint.
     The Creator gave us this incredible gift, this healing force of nature we call the seashore. I call it my church. It’s open 24/7 and absolutely free of charge. There are no restrictions of any kind for admission. You just have to go. It’s as simple as that. Whatever your belief system, your spirit will be fed. If you open your heart to it, you will come away rich in peace and loving kindness, or if you prefer, filled with The Holy Spirit. Others may describe being in touch with the essence of God within. It doesn’t matter what you call it. You don’t have to call it anything. Is simply is.
     Just don’t do what Gretchen and I did. We left our phones in the car, and when we finally packed up to leave, it was almost midnight. The park closes at 10. Whoops. I drove to the gate, knowing we would find it locked. But living on The Island is a lot like living in Mayberry. I simply called the non-emergency police number (which every woman, wherever she lives, should have programmed in her phone), and told the dispatcher we were locked in Massengale Park and needed to be let out. Within minutes a nice officer drove up, opened the gate, and without a word, waved us through. 
     It was those negative ions, I just know it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman

Author's note: If you linked here from Facebook or Twitter and have a thought about this post, please leave a comment here on the blog. I'm in Facebook timeout again, and I won't see your comments there.  


Monday, June 13, 2016

Hiding in Plain Sight

I don’t know what to say. Yesterday’s massacre in Orlando has me distracted and angry and sad. I didn’t turn on the TV yesterday until nearly 11 o’clock I was stupid enough to keep it on most of the day. I am saturated with the blood of it, the senselessness of it, the utter evil of it. I have stared at Omar Mateen’s face, trying to see the darkness that surely lived behind it, but he looks like a regular person, not a terrorist. That’s the thing. Evil doesn’t necessarily announce itself when it walks in the room. 
I turned on my computer and began searching for sites where I could learn the difference between Islam and Islamic extremism, and my eyes were opened. Why did I wait to long to educate myself? Have I really been slinging the word, sharia, around without actually understanding the meaning of it? 
During the aftermaths of the terror attacks in Paris, California, and other locations around the world and in the US, I was able to distance myself in a healthy way. I was aware of the dreadful circumstances but didn’t allow it to penetrate and overtake my unconscious. I felt pain and sorrow and anger but wasn’t overcome by it.
Is this because I have a gay friend who works for Disney and lives in Orlando? I immediately wondered and worried about him. Thankfully, he posted on FaceBook yesterday that he decided to stay in on Saturday night. He may be safe, but he lost friends and acquaintances in the attack. He may be alive, but he’s not okay. His heart is broken and mine is broken for him. 
I had trouble falling asleep last night. Every time I thought I was settled and ready to center myself for sleep, an unfamiliar restlessness came over me. I felt the need to move my body, turn over or reposition my legs. I finally sat up and started reading, but keeping my mind on the book was next to impossible. My grandmother would have described my state this way: I was as agitated as a worm in hot ashes. I finally resorted to a sleeping pill.
I oversaturated myself with negative energy. That’s what I did, and I don’t understand why I did it. Did I think things would get better if I just waited long enough? There must be a name for that kind of sick attraction to tragedy. I suppose that’s the next topic I should explore on the internet. 
So, when I got up this morning, I vowed not to turn on TV. Instead, I began nesting. I went out on the front porch and watered my maidenhair and foxtail ferns. I dragged the hose up on the porch and watered my ferns in hanging baskets and my Christmas cactuses. Then I went out back to the deck and watered all the plants out there. The hibiscus hasn’t a single flower today, not one. It’s clearly in mourning. I told the orchids everything would be okay, murmured reassurance to the asparagus fern and the pale pink pentas. I even went out in the yard to the shady spot where nothing will grow and spoke to the Irish Moss I planted there out of desperation. I cleaned the grill and stowed it in the store room. The heat index was in the upper 90s, and sweat was pouring off me.
I didn’t care. I came inside and started fooling around in the kitchen. I thought about sharpening my knives so they’ll be ready the next time I’m moved to chop up something, but Gretchen is nesting, too. She was in the middle of mixing up a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, so I got out of her way and sat down in the den to cool off. 
Have I really made this about me? I suppose I have. I bruised my soul yesterday, allowed myself to be bombarded with the worst of bad news, and today I just can’t do it. I can’t be part of it. I don’t even want to sign in to FaceBook because it’s too painful.
Doubtless, many bloggers are writing about this horrible thing that happened to all of us. The victims and their families in Orlando are not alone. Millions of people across the world are standing with them, trying to imagine their suffering and offering support and love.
I count myself among them, but for now, I’m offering my support and love from behind the curtain of my little world here on my little island. 
I’ll be out soon. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Zen of Cleaning Crabs

  Since I was a young girl growing up on Saint Simons Island, I’ve been catching and picking blue crabs, the tasty crustaceans with bright blue claws and olive green shells that are plentiful in these waters. Before I was old enough to cook and clean them, my mama taught my three brothers and me how to catch them using a stick and a line. For the uninitiated, you’ll need a “stick” about three feet long. It can be a broom handle sawed in half or a slender board—whatever you have on hand to which you can tie a length of heavy twine. You’ll also need some raw chicken necks or backs. It’s an old wives’ tale that you should let them sit in the sun until they’re smelly. Would YOU like to eat a crab that just ingested spoiled chicken? 
To finish out the equipment list, get ourself a five gallon bucket and a dip net. Tie a piece of chicken to the loose end of the line and, at low tide, find yourself a spot on the beach near a inlet where you can wade out knee deep and stick your pole in the sand. Throw the chicken out into the water—and wait. You may even want to walk back to your chair and pull a cold one out of the cooler. If the crabs are active, you won’t have to wait long. Gently pull the line toward you until you can see the chicken. It there are crabs greedily attacking it, continue to pull it until you can scoop them up in your net. Go slow and you won’t scare them away. They're greedy little monsters, and they'll follow that chicken practically to your feet. 
        There is no greater thrill than watching children catching crabs. Their squeals of feigned fear and pure delight will stay with you forever. Imagine your children or grandchildren, brown as berries from the sun, taking turns wielding the net, scooping up the crabs and running to shore with their catch. And yes, there were the arguments about just whose turn it was to hold the net and just who let a big one get away, but they were happy, so very happy. 
        We had a Boxer named Toma who would wade out, sit down in the water up to her chest, and watch over the kids. Once, when out of the innocent curiosity only a Boxer can have, she stuck her muzzle into a jelly fish and her whole face swelled up like a manatee. I had to take her home and dose her with Benadryl, but she was okay. We were all okay. We were all happy. 
        I got off on a little tangent there, didn't I? So, here's the story I intended to tell in the beginning.
  On Monday of this week, Crab Man called from The Village Pier, where he puts in traps nearly every day. (You can’t crab with a stick and a line at the pier.) He wanted to know if I were interested in buying his catch, and I thought about it for a moment and said I did. I refused a bucket about a week before because I didn’t have time to process them, and I’d had a taste for them ever since. It’s a lengthy operation, getting blue crabs from the ocean into a crab cake or some other delicacy, but nothing makes for better eating.
  I parked my truck and, flip-flops slapping at my heels, walked out onto the pier swinging a bright orange Home Depot bucket. I found Crab Man half way down the dock, and when I peered into his catch, I smiled. There, waving their claws and bubbling at their mouths, were 15 big blue beauties. I paid him ten dollars, we exchanged buckets, and I drove home with the air conditioner blowing full blast to keep the crabs cool and alive. I don’t cook dead crabs, and neither should you. 
  I stowed the bucket in a cool corner of the kitchen and hauled out my biggest boiler and set it on the stovetop. When the water was rolling, I sprinkled it liberally with Tony Chachere’s seafood seasoning. (There is no other.) And then I emptied the bucket of crabs into the pot and covered it with the lid. I know, I know. Where’s the Zen in that? It’s not the most pleasant part of the job. They struggle for a few seconds, but I rationalize away any guilt by telling myself death is almost instantaneous. And then there’s the end product—succulent, sweet deliciousness.
  Twenty minutes later, the crabs had turned bright orange and were floating in the water, a sure sign they were done. I dumped them in the sink to cool and cleaned up the splatters of crab water that inevitably spew out of the pot onto the ceramic cooktop. I hate that thing. It’s a pain in my ass every time I have to clean it, and the only reason I have one is that that there’s no gas line on our street, and I’m unwilling to have a tank buried in my back yard. Learning to live without a gas range is the biggest challenge I faced when I bought this wonderful house.
  When the crabs were cool enough to handle, I set about pulling off the claws and depositing them in a bowl. Then I tugged off the backs and broke the skeletons in half in order to clean out the innards. 
  This is when the Zen kicks in. While performing this chore, I can’t think of anything else. I am completely in the moment, concentrating only on removing the long fingerlike gills and rinsing out the spongy goo that is the stomach. I give them a final rinse with the kitchen sprayer and put them in the bowl with the claws. Some people experience a sense of fulfillment when ironing or mowing the grass or shelling a basket of butter beans. For me, there is great satisfaction in the sight of a bowl full of crabs, clean and ready to pick.
        Since the trash man wouldn't be coming for a week, I bagged up all the shells and body parts and stowed them in the freezer until Sunday night. You ain't lived until you've let crab sit in your garbage bin for a week in hot weather. If I were the trash guy, I wouldn't go near it.

  Traditionally in our family, picking crabs has been a joint effort. Everyone gathered around the old card table that Harry almost blew up with his chemistry set. We spread newspaper over it and, and using nut crackers and picks, we all worked together. When we were older, there was beer involved. After Clint and I married, his children and grandchildren became part of the process. Bowls filled with crabmeat quickly, and to a person, everybody in my family has fond memories of those times. No, we were not a family who ate as we picked, dipping the crab in melted butter. Hell, if we had done that, the slow pickers would have been out of luck.
  There’s an art to extracting the meat from a crab carcass, and not everyone is gifted in that way. When my brother John was alive, he sucked at it. Even after he was a grown man, someone always had to pick over his bowl for bits of shell. His wife Lisa, on the other hand, is one of the best pickers I’ve ever known. I’m pretty good at it, too. Once I picked out 36 crabs by myself because everyone else was out fishing with Clint. Then, as now, I didn’t mind and in fact enjoyed the solitude and the Zen of it all. 
  When the picking was over, Mama would make a big dish of crab au gratin or a pot of crab soup—whatever we had enough crab to make. Sometimes we had both.

  Back to Monday. I spread newspaper on the coffee table and gathered my equipment. Vodka was involved. Using the same nut crackers and picks Mama bought half a century ago to shell pecans, I got down to work. I picked out the bodies first, because they’re the hardest. The cartilage that separates the compartments of white lumps of meat is tricky to negotiate. Over time, I’ve developed a feel for them, which is a good thing because these 68 year old eyes ain’t so sharp any more. Some would call it tedious work, but as I’ve already explained, I get lost in it. It takes me completely outside myself.
  If you’re picking crabs by yourself, frequent breaks are necessary. Your fingers get shriveled and a little numb, which can result in sloppy work. Can’t have that. Coincidentally, breaks were necessary about the same time my drink needed a patch. Funny how that works.
  Bodies out of the way, I attacked the claws. Child’s play. Using a dish rag to protect my fingers, I pried them apart. In most cases, the cartilage that separates the big side into two hunks of dark meat came out in one piece. Yes! Then all I had to do was crack the hard shells and remove the contents. 
  Once I was finished and my fingers came back to life, I made two passes at the bowl of sweet goodness to check for shells. Hey, I never said I was perfect. It’s almost impossible to find every tiny piece of shell and cartilage, but it’s important to try, a matter of pride, really. Sloppy picking makes for less than appealing crab cakes.

  A dozen large crabs will render about a pound of meat. If you pack it into a two-cup measure, you can be certain it’s a pound. Good to know because many recipes call for crab by weight. I had a little over a pound, so there was enough to make crab cakes for dinner with enough left over for crab au gratin appetizers (recipe from Bennie’s Red Barn) for the next night. 
  I used a recipe for crab cakes I’d never tried, and to be honest, it wasn’t my best work. Next time I’ll fall back on the tried and true recipe that’s served me well over the years: a pound of crab, a finely chopped onion and a couple of sticks of minced celery, two eggs, a little chopped parsley and some Lea and Perrins (no substitute). After it’s all mixed together, form into small patties and sauté them in a little butter and olive oil over medium heat. Crab is rich, so don’t make them too big. Be patient and don’t try to cook them too fast or turn them too soon. The bottom needs to be brown, not burned, and holding together when you turn them, or you’ll have a mess on your hands. Besides, the onion and celery need time to cook. 

        I hope everyone who reads this post will have a chance to go crabbing the old fashioned way, then get the family together for cooking, cleaning and picking. You'll make wonderful and lasting memories. It makes me feel good in my feelings just thinking about it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman