Monday, July 28, 2008

A Recital and Religion

A few weeks ago, my oldest son participated in his annual piano recital. His teacher organizes her students into recitals from their earliest lessons—in fact, this year a kid who had had only one or two lessons participated: he bowed to the audience.

As always, the recital was at a nursing home. This provides a change of routine for residents who choose to attend. There was a piano in the dining room, and members of the audience pulled chairs back from the tables and turned them toward the front. There was a decent turnout of residents who occupied the forward rows while parents of piano and voice students sat every which where around the room.

While listening to the performers, I couldn’t help but notice that the four-seat dining table in front of me had a tent card on it printed with three dinner blessings. One was titled Protestant, another was titled Roman Catholic, and the other was titled Jewish.

First of all: I’m certain that by the time you move into a nursing home, you’re going to know a blessing appropriate to your religious affiliation. I puzzled over this for a bit, and decided that the intent of the card was, perhaps, to promote understanding—a Jew could see the blessing of a Catholic or Protestant, a Catholic could see blessings of Jews and Protestants, and a Protestant could see blessings of Catholics and Jews. Sharing insights into faith, I believe, shows good moral fiber.

Then, I wondered: How rigid are these religions? The Catholic blessing on the tent card was familiar, but the Jewish and Protestant blessings were news to me. It’s hard to believe that Catholics everywhere say this particular blessing before dining… but maybe they all do. With Judaism having so many branches, it’s even harder to believe that there is one proper dinner blessing for all of them. Most certainly, the blessing labeled Protestant is arbitrary: even if it originated from a Protestant church, there are so many dozens of Protestant religions that no one dinner blessing could satisfy all of them. What’s more, the very designation of Protestant suggests a follower would question the validity of one blessing over the validity of any other; a good protestant wouldn’t let a nursing home administrator dictate how to give thanks at dinner.

Finally, I thought: Is this all there is? No Hindu prayer? No Islamic prayer? No Native American prayer? Nothing Buddhist, Confucius, Tao, or Zen? Of course not; not in Lewisburg. Prayers on the tables were as underrepresented as the religions of the world are in our community.

Anyway, the prayer tent cards really challenged me. There were also name cards at each seat, so apparently the same people eat in the nursing home dining room meal-after-meal. With that understanding, and all my musing about the specific prayers, I came full circle back to “first of all…” I’m not about to enter a nursing home, but I know how to pray before a meal. If I last long enough to check into a nursing home, it’ll be one that doesn’t have semi-eclectic prayer cards on the dining tables.

Oh. I enjoyed the recital.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Farmers' Market

What a wet shopping day! Since I took over cooking for the household back in December, I’ve done the grocery shopping on Wednesdays. Yesterday, it happened to be raining quite hard during my excursion.

My shopping trip usually includes visits to a Mennonite grocery store, to the Lewisburg Farmers’ Market, to the nearly adjacent recycling center, and to Weis Market, the local branch of a typical grocery chain that originates in Pennsylvania. My favorite stop by far is the Lewisburg Farmers’ Market.

The Farmers’ Market is a very long building with vendor tables along the walls, and more tables marking stands along the center of the building. There are stands outside, many along the north side of the building, several more forming a courtyard in front (to the east of the building), and a couple more spilling along the south side of the building. Beyond these outdoor stands is a dirt and gravel parking lot.

The Farmers’ Market is open only on Wednesdays. It draws farmers and vendors from all over central Pennsylvania. Shop there through a year, and you can track the seasons up the east coast as produce arrives from points south months before the same items will ripen here. The best produce at the market, however, is whatever’s in season locally.

We’ve already overdosed on fresh strawberries, and have had no problem with the segue into cherry season (and the overlapping blueberry season). On the vegetable side, we’ve been chowing fresh peas and new potatoes, and we did in a quart of wax beans over the past week. Local peaches are available, though we’re early in peach season, and local sweet corn started appearing at the market a week ago.

The available options will continue to change, but our farmers grow nearly every vegetable and fruit the local climate allows; we’ll see great variety all the way into winter. And, if you think something’s in season but you don’t see it at the market, ask one of the vendors and the item might be available next Wednesday.

The Farmers’ Market is more than a great produce-shop. Inside, there is a stand dedicated to serving hundreds—perhaps thousands of sausage sandwiches each Wednesday. Get to the market early, and the whole building smells like cooking sausage. Get there around lunch time, and a crowd surrounds the stand. Folks buy sandwiches, then chat with fellow shoppers as they lean against the counter. For many, this is the Farmers’ Market experience... who needs produce when you have a sausage sandwich?

At the Farmers’ Market you can buy meat, seafood, candy, cheese, spices, kitchen gadgets, soft pretzels, deep-fried potatoes, antiques, tools, all-for-a-dollar items, soaps, clothing, vacuum cleaner parts, hand-made crafts, and baked goods. The prices are good, and the vendors are usually friendly—even during heavy rain when canopies of the outdoor vendors stream sheets of water through which customers must step to reach the tables. Sure, I got soaked, but still the Farmers’ Market was the high point of my shopping chore.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hay Season

I love hay season. The timing of the season varies from farm-to-farm, but usually the local farmers cut and harvest in late June or early July, and again in September. Much depends on rain. In some seasons, central Pennsylvania farmers may get three cuttings of hay, and in a very dry year, the second cutting can be a great disappointment.

Making hay is a simple task. You begin by having a field of grasses and other plants that your livestock likes to eat. Popular plants include Timothy grass, Orchard grass, Alfalfa, and Clover. When the grasses are mature, but not fully gone to seed, you “mow” the field, cutting the plants close to the ground.

After mowing, you leave the cut plants on the ground to dry… and you might even revisit the field after a few days to flip the clippings so they dry evenly. Before the cut plants dry out completely, you gather them into bales or piles, depending on your preference—or the equipment you have available.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of hay-making. A farmer must prepare and plant a hay field; work the cutting, drying, baling, and storing around the weather (drying hay during a rainy month can’t be easy); evaluate when a field must be revitalized (it’s possible to get several years of good hay from a single planting); and deal with the baling equipment.

I have nothing to do with any of this. In fact, the only part of hay-making that makes me love the season is the cutting. Here’s why: when the local farmers cut their hay fields, the smell of onions fills the air. This is because wild onions grow in the hay fields—enough to produce a cloud of sweet onion aroma that hangs over the land for a day or two. This same onion smell can drift off of a freshly cut soy bean or corn field as well… but the harvest for those is still a month or more away.

If I simply craved the smell of onions, I’d go to the kitchen and cut one open. But I love the hay season not for the onion smell itself, but rather because of the smell. I’d never have expected it: a farmer harvests a crop, and the neighborhood smells like onions for a few days. It’s unexpected. It borders on absurd. I love it.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Broadband USA!

Natural gas is available in Lewisburg. Many residents can have it piped to their houses, but I live beyond the reach of the natural gas lines. So, without spending coin for infrastructure updates, I have no choice but to run all my heating systems on electricity.

About a hundred years ago, electricity might not have been an option. Then, there was a movement under way to run electric transmission wires to every home in the United States—being a relatively new convenience, electricity wasn’t available everywhere. Electricity was least available in rural communities: it cost far more per customer to run wires through sparsely-populated areas than it did to run wires through cities. Electric companies needed special motivation to run fifteen miles of cable that would service only three customers.

Today we’re dealing with a new “wiring” challenge: In rural communities, many households do not have affordable broadband access to the Internet. In a city, you might have five or more choices in broadband carriers, and they compete for your business through price wars, discounted installation, and other incentives. In a rural area, there is only one certain broadband option—satellite—and it’s generally crazy expensive compared to more conventional old-fashioned solutions (when they’re available).

I participate in an organization called the Susquehanna Valley Broadband Advisory Committee sponsored by SEDA-COG (the Susquehanna Economic Development Association Council of Governments). The purpose of this committee is to promote the delivery (availability) of affordable broadband internet access to every resident of the rural Pennsylvania area SEDA-COG serves.

There are pockets of houses scattered on remote hillsides throughout central Pennsylvania. Many folks who live in them want high speed internet access, but can’t afford the satellite services. On the other hand, there are still folks who don’t have internet access… and some who do have it will never budge from dial-up.

So, our committee explores the dynamics that drive reliance on the internet. What motivates people to want high-speed access? What motivates people altogether to disregard connectivity? We met yesterday and agreed that local government is a major stumbling block to the spread of broadband access; older government officials have no use for information technology. When they grudgingly accept its use in their organizations, they don’t want to share the benefits—or the information—with other agencies. We also discussed the challenges of employing recent college graduates who take technology for granted: how can traditional companies (and rural PA is rife with traditional companies) work with employees who command tools their managers have never even imagined?

As much as I love the isolation of rural living, I crave the intellectual stimulation you tend to get from working with people in information technology. It’s a boost to spend half a day with this group that is dedicated to advancing the community through IT. I look forward to next month’s meeting.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tenacious Plant

I take a camera with me nearly every time I leave the house (except, perhaps, for three out of four dog walks). Most times, the camera is a nuisance, hanging on a shoulder or around my neck and flopping in the way when I walk quickly, bend over, carry things, or otherwise do something active. Occasionally, I see something beautiful, odd, or unusual that begs me to capture an image. While it seems more likely I see such sights when I don’t have the camera along, now and then I get lucky and shoot a scene that has “blog entry” written all over it.

In fact, I don’t write enough blog entries to keep up with the photos I’d like to share, so eventually I’ll put together a photo album or a very image-intensive article about some of the lovely sights in the Susquehanna Valley. The photo included with this blog entry is a throwback to my family’s vacation in early June.

The kids and I spent a week at my dad’s lake cottage north of Ithaca, NY on Cayuga Lake, and Stacy joined us for the last two days of the trip. During our stay, I relaxed alone on the boat dock twice, musing about nothing in particular, and trying to capture in pictures the tranquility of the place and the jarring contrasts between that tranquility and the lurking civilized world.

On one boulder that defines the entrance to a wading area along the shore, there was a single small plant growing as certainly as any plant growing in soil. Where the plant meets rock, there is a smear that could be mud, sand, or rotting seaweed deposited by waves during a storm. The smear had landed in a crack that had formed, probably, over dozens of years.

It’s possible the boulder had some small cracks or scratches it received when it broke away from the face of the cliff and fell decades or centuries earlier. Lichens—organisms that are a happy community of fungus and algae working together—might have grown on or near the crack; the chemicals they produced weakened the crack a bit, making the rock a bit porous.

The weakness in the rock captured some water that froze in the winter, expanding the void. The next winter, the crack held slightly more water which did more damage when it froze, and so on. After enough freeze-thaw weathering, there was a cavity deep enough to capture silt, sand, and detritus… and, apparently, a dandelion seed. The seed rooted, the plant emerged, and there it clings, its roots now hastening the erosion of the boulder that is its home.

What are the chances a seed would strike that little smear of soil just so? What are the chances that the smear of soil could hold enough water to keep a plant alive? I guess it’s not so crazy impossible, because only a few feet away on another boulder, another plant grows… and there are more on still other boulders and on the cliff face. Such tenacious plants must be the norm on planet Earth.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Camp Season

Summer camp season is upon us. My oldest son has already completed a week at Susquehanna University’s Wind Ensemble Institute, a sleepover camp at which he spent as many as six hours a day practicing clarinet in preparation for a recital and a concert at week’s end. (The concert was very impressive for an ensemble of mostly high school kids.)

My daughter is away this week as a Girl Scout. She’s participating in a central Pennsylvania camp’s Cables, Carabiners, & Currents program. This involves navigating a system of ropes high above the ground, rock climbing, and white-water rafting—presumably not all at the same time. It sounds like a great week, but we won’t know until she returns; our daughter has never communicated with us from summer camp.

She’ll come home for a day and a half, and then leave to another camp—this one more of an academically focused sleepover camp based at Mansfield University about an hour and a half north of Lewisburg. Then, her brother—my middle child—will go to the Mansfield summer camp. Later, my oldest son will attend a sleepover Boy Scout camp for a week, and then both of my boys will do band camp—a day camp for the high school marching band.

There’s one overwhelming truth I’ve learned from past summer camp seasons: the more kids that are away at camp during a week, the quieter it is around the house. This isn’t a big deal because my office is in the far corner of the basement, and, when at my desk, I’d have no clue if a wild party ensued in the rest of the house. Still, dinners are quieter with two kids than with three, and even quieter with one than with two or three.

Summer camp also reduces the general commotion of shuttling kids to classes and social engagements—but Stacy handles ninety percent or more of the shuttling, so this also isn’t a huge change during the season.

For me, there are two most significant effects of summer camp that are extensions of the quiet and lessened commotion:

1. The cadence of our household changes when one or more child is away at camp; it doesn’t feel quite right. We make decisions based on the tastes of only four or three people rather than on the tastes of five. Movies, foods, board games, excursions… with fewer people, the dynamics are different—not better or worse or easier—just different. For example, with my daughter away, the boys wanted to watch a PG-13 movie every night… we don’t watch a movie every night, so that was odd. And near the end of week two, my oldest son observed that we’d watched a lot of suspense and action flicks (James Bond, The Fugitive, Frequency, so we opted for a comedy (Ferris Bueler’s Day Off).

2. Our kids do just fine at camp… and they’re approaching the age where going away becomes a more permanent condition. Seeing them succeed so handily for a week or two is gratifying; when it’s time to go for good, no doubt they’ll flourish. But each success amplifies the inevitability of their departure. I miss them a bit while they’re at camp, and I’ll miss them a bunch when they head off to college and careers.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Independence Day In Lewisburg

Independence Day has given rise to a family tradition at our house: What with the town’s official “End of June” celebration now a week behind us, we invite a bunch of people to party on the Fourth. This year we organized a dish-to-share dinner. We grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and provided various soft drinks. Guests brought salads, casseroles, desserts, and whatever alcoholic drinks they wanted. The party started at 5:00, with the expectation we’d have some fireworks at dark. This meant a solid four-and-a-half hours of conversation, eating, and recreation.

It was interesting to see that the children organized themselves into games they played in the yard—most notably, Capture The Flag. Early, younger adults gravitated to the game tables: table tennis, air hockey, and pocket billiards in the basement. Older adults found comfortable seating and chatted while I fired up the grill.

After we ate, the children returned to games in the yard. The young adults, now, found comfortable seating and chatted while the older adults (well, many of the older adults) took over the game tables. Along the way, there was some Guitar Hero activity in the living room (adults, mostly).

The youngest kids were fading by the time it got dark—some parents took kids home early, but others stayed for the fireworks. Pennsylvania law allows fireworks that spray showers of sparks and make noise. Without a license, you may not set off fireworks that launch exploding shells into the air. So, we had a modest and mildly entertaining selection of firework fountains and spinny/sparky things, along with sparklers for people to wave. Near by, neighbors had a far more impressive selection of firework fountains and aerials—a display that was worth the price of admission.

Several moments will make the event stick with me for some time: We have a good friend from Pakistan who just graduated from Bucknell and is working in Lewisburg. He brought several folks with him who are attending—or have attended—Bucknell. I enjoyed visiting with them and learning (too little) about their experiences. As well, a few of them brought curry dishes as they’d have in their home countries! It stretched the food selections in unusual directions for a traditional Fourth of July meal.

One of our guests offered up a game of table tennis to awe all but the best players. My game isn’t polished, but it isn’t too shabby. However, the mere seven points I won against his 21 made it clear there is a level of table tennis far beyond my experience. He revealed after we played that going pro had been an option for him when he was ten years old.

Finally, another guest stayed at the pool table well after the fireworks. His shooting was decent, and it pleased me to learn that he plays several games—eight ball, nine ball, straight pool, and one pocket. We played a bit of each, and I showed him a few other ones he might try with his friends. I felt a little younger than usual when I shuttled him back to campus at 1:00 in the morning.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wild Fruit

I track the progression of summer by the free food available in my neighborhood. When strawberries ripen in the meadow across the street—or in my yard if I don’t mow often enough—I know that summer is upon us. The berries are copious, and could provide for many shortcakes but for one problem: these are woodland strawberries, and they don’t have much flavor. In fact, they’re not even juicy.

I Googled woodland strawberry, and found many references that describe these berries as sweet and tasty… apparently, references written by someone who has never eaten Lewisburg’s woodland strawberries. I would describe them as crunchy and bland—something I’d eat as a survivalist, but never if the domesticated equivalent (or nearly any other fruit for that matter) were available.

Shortly after strawberries ripen, black raspberries darken to a deep purple. These grow along hedgerows and in fields beneath low bushes and trees. In early summer, you can tell local black raspberries are ripe when bird droppings in your area are purple rather than white.

I love the flavor of black raspberries, and I pick what I can find in the wild places near my house. I don’t care for crunchy fruit, so I juice the raspberries to make jelly and ice cream. I also mix the juice with other fruits to fill pies or make what I call fruit punch jam. Compared to cultivated, commercial raspberries at $4 per pint, wild berries are like money growing on thorny stalks.

As the black raspberries fade (the best picking lasts about two weeks), ripe blackberries emerge. These grow in nearly the same places as the black raspberries—but they seem to favor open spaces away from the tree line; in a small meadow, black raspberries grow around the edges, and blackberries grow near the middle.

While they look similar to black raspberries, blackberries are bigger and crunchier. They have a distinctive flavor, and even a little blackberry juice mixed with other fruits can overwhelm the other flavors. I like the flavor, but I’d choose black raspberry jelly over blackberry every time.

Blackberries hold on for a solid month, and as they pass their prime, elderberries come into their own. Elderberries grow on tall wooden stalks—tree-like bushes. The ends of the stalks sport white flowers in early summer. These give way to green berries that ripen near mid August into large clusters of deep purple spheres—about the size of tapioca balls. Each ball has a large seed in its center, so elderberries are at least as crunchy as blackberries. Flavor-wise, elderberries appeal to me about as much as woodland strawberries: I’d eat them to avoid starvation in a crisis—as enthusiastically as I’d eat Brussels sprouts.

Autumn fruits don’t grow wild in the neighborhood, so elderberries mark the end of the free food season. Still, it’s awesome to find so many free things to eat so close to my front door. Nature is a terrific provider.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at