Category Archives: original works

original works

Small Gestures

Two weeks into this pandemic with fear and uncertainty persistent, UnderMain reached out to the arts community in an attempt to reconnect. Since then, we have partnered with various organizations to help provide emergency grants to those most in need.  We have encouraged regional leaders and many of our writers to share their views of the world Post-COVID. We have invited various constituents to join our weekly meetings as we revaluate our mission and our role.

Pressed into unbearable corners physically, emotionally, and financially as the landscape continues to tilt, UnderMain supports efforts to enact systemic change to our fragile industry. Balance and sanity also direct us toward the small gestures that seed change in each of us.

This is that.

Near the end of March, we reached out to Jim Betts – a contributor to UnderMain whose words always soothe – and he shared his project, Notecard Essays. The cathartic nature of his pen to paper was clear; so, we thought it might be nice to share. Below is Jim’s methodology for making these notecards – it’s a kind of process that incorporates a ritual and serves to gently reveal personal truths and, for Jim, unlocks something even more universal.

***

I sit, usually following a walk, with a notecard spread blank before me.  Hopefully on the walk I have come up with a topic, a “through line” which I will pursue. Sometimes I am particularly writing to a person, sometimes he/she is just next on the list. I address the card, date it, address the envelope and, thus committed, I approach the pure white canvas. I try to have a point. I try to broach the subject from a specific example, expanding out to some universal or at least personal truth. I embellish with flowery, poetic, philosophical language depending on topic/reader. I do not write the letter to him/her, but the person receiving it colors the presentation. And that to be presented colors the recipient.  I do not/cannot edit, it is a one shot deal. So like zen calligraphy, I sit down, gather myself, write and emerge somehow transformed from the practice. That is what is known as a good day.

None of this matters. It is how I do it. It really can be revelatory. I am frequently surprised by what comes off my pen. I copy them on my printer, seal the envelope with a wax seal (Why not? It heightens the drama, gift wraps the card and lets me play with fire.  By the way, the dripping and stamping is also part of the zen practice…), stamp them and put them in my home mailbox with the little flag up to announce their merry presence.  All in all it is a good use of an hour.

***

Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

Here are a few of Jim’s notecards:

***

Dearest Mother, 3/11/2018
I watch with some amusement and lots of amazement as the mockingbird patrols the back yard. We have a line of feeders spaced 20-30 feet apart. The mockingbird zooms back and forth from feeder to feeder, flaring his wings and strafing any bird bold enough to transgress. And of course they do. He is only one bird and when his back is turned, they whiz in for a quick seed. He of course cannot allow this, so back he goes, over and over again. I can’t imagine the energy demands on both body and spirit that kind of selfish behavior must exact. The little birds still sneak in and gain a crumb and whatever joy is present in the pastoral life of a bird, seems denied the mockingbird, save that of a bully. And despite his stingy dominion, I don’t see him overrode than anyone else. How much simpler it would be, from my non-avian perspective, to sit in the gathered trees, sing the joys of spring and share in the bounty available to all. I’m sure there is a metaphor for my life glaringly present. Suffice to say, in a land of plenty, sharing with open heart would seem the path towards greater peace.
All my love, Jim.

***

Dear Kristine,
I’ve discovered the joys of notecards. This little rectangle of open promise provides a perfect warp for the weft of words a moment in time inspires. Not short and thoughtless like a text, not interrupted by “Get Well Soon!,” not endless like a sheet of paper (why stop at the end? Just get another sheet!) this untrammeled snowfield invites a quiet stroll, a thoughtful communion, a short exploration of an idea or occurrence. These cards are the haiku of essays; succinct, evocative, pithy yet playful. They are tailored to an individual and informed by a moment yet, if properly realized, address a broader, deeper examination of topic. Perhaps I am being overly significant, saddling this pretty stock with greater weight than it is comfortable. But I view them as a wonderful conversation with a close friend, say, like after the second glass of wine has been poured. When, while your partner takes a sip, you are free to expound on some matter of great import, to her delight (hopefully) or to the unburdening of mind. They are a short, one-sided exchange which allow me, the writer, to share the process of fleshing out an idea with a kindred soul. This little rectangle frames the thought, shaping beginning and end, allowing for creative middling. Thanks for understanding.

***

Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

Dear Alary,
We watched a movie the other night, a lovely, brooding film called “The Hours.” In it, one of the characters, the Poet, says something like “I spent my whole life trying to describe a single day…and I couldn’t do it!” I’ve been waking a lot, reveling in the glories of a Kentucky spring. After a bit of grumbling about the weather, I have adopted a no-expectations mantra, breathed rapturously at the start: “Show me the glories of this day.” And each day is magical. Whether it is the unexpected sighting of a Scarlet Tanager, whose bold red and black mimic the appearance of our typical Cardinal. Or the wind-driven, sun-dappled sway of the spring maples, suffused with an almost holy light. Or the buttery warmth of the sun as it wrestles it’s way through the morning’s clouds. I could brush over all these, paying sensuous tribute, but I could not begin to factor in the manifold years and years of magic sun, crisp crescent moon, summers, fall, hard frozen winters which yield with gracious tenacity to the moment I am breathing in now. And all that everythingness that informs my experience of the world is mine. It shares a passing glance, a moment or two with yours, but the vastness of your life escapes me. I feel an honest embrace of that which moves me, with gracious allowance for what moves you, is a life well lived.

***

Dear Nicole,
My daily walks have invigorated me such that I regularly take evening walks. And this very familiar landscape takes on an ominous hue with the coming of the gloaming. This is a different space, evoking an implicit threat, a time of stealth and shadow, Dark Magic. The sounds carry further and quicken the heart. This is the time of raccoons, opossums, owls, elves. A time of scheming, quick treachery and surprise. I contrast that with the day’s magic. Light, airy, inviting, joyful. Equally capable of seducing you from your appointed path, but with the tinkling of little bells or the gentle waving of gaily sun-dappled flowers. The birds sing lustily from the tree tops, the wind playfully rustles the gossamer and chenille of the spring wardrobe. This is the time of faeries, a glad sweet time. I find myself loosening my winter’s jacket and lengthening my stride. My spirit soars in communion. At night I huddle more, tucking myself in, still the open perception but this one more wary. During the days wave to fellow travelers as they pass in their cars. At night, I slide behind trees, shy of the headlights but more, husbanding my invisibility. As a creature of sight, I cleave to the day, savoring the visual feast surrounding me. As a creator of adventure, the night pulls in visceral ways, a Siren promising wild beauty but also potential rocks.

Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

***

The day broke mottled, cold winter grey punctuated by spring’s golden glory.  The sun-washed the nascent green leaves and caused one to loosen one’s jacket.  I got to the road, preparing to enter the courtly secluded neighborhood next to mine when a car drove by.  My eyes were drawn to the liquid cardinal flights all around me when I heard a sound much like a fast-food cup being run over. I looked and saw a squirrel on the verge of the road, clearly run over.  I stood, shocked, silently hoping the car had run over an already dead squirrel, when I saw it feebly twitch its tail a few times, then nothing. The speed with which spring’s joy was stifled was stunning. A certain luster to the day faded. In this time of unseen rapid death, the peace with which I walk deflated and I was once again afraid and sad. Uttering a prayer for vision and wisdom, I pressed on grimly. Birds sang and chased, squirrels gamboled, the delicate seedpods of the maples swang in the breeze like a flapper girl’s dress. A hawk groomed himself atop a light pole, blossoming like all else around. Yet not from sun and rain but flesh and blood. He was a harbinger of death, beneficiary of such like the vulture or the maggot. The roundness of life emerged, the symbiotic grace of it. From the perspective of the individual, the ego, life begins and ends, has a quality of fairness or not, but from the universal, the aggregate is beautiful.

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original works

Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life

What an odd thing a shelf is. A shelf is just a shelf really, right? Put a thing on it, though, and it is immediately transformed into something else. Once we begin to populate our shelves with objects – whether with precious memorabilia, beautiful images, feathers, or found knots – the whole thing becomes something else. We put objects on shelves to somehow honor them or know them better; we may even wonder if time will reveal something more about them. We might also believe that they could withstand the test of time – simply by being placed on a shelf.

On a recent couple of visits to the home and studio of Ron Isaacs and his wife Judy – both avid art collectors – I could not help but wonder if there was some parallel between the object-laden shelves I saw there and the work of the artist himself. Was it the manner in which they were so masterfully composed or something else? Something life-giving? So, I decided to look a little closer and to listen.

The artist Claes Oldenburg once declared that the harder he looked at a thing, the more mysterious it became.  “I know the feeling,” Ron writes in his artist’s statement – quoting the Modern/Pop artist often. “Objects have voiceless, inscrutable physical presences, and memories, as well; these memories are borne on their surfaces as signs of growth or manufacture, use or care, neglect or entropy.”

Ron Isaacs was trained as a painter, receiving a bachelor’s degree in art from Berea College in 1963 and an M.F.A. in painting from Indiana University in 1965. For many years he worked and taught as a painter, and considers the period from 1969 to 1973 as one of rapid development in his artistic career. In the early 1970s, he began collaging elements, attaching three-dimensional objects to his canvases and then painting this and that to combine. They were, in his words, clunky. Then, after a little experimentation, Ron had an epiphany realizing he could make a painting any shape he wanted. He threw out the canvas and discovered instead Finnish birch plywood constructions, what is now his signature medium. For over 45 years, Ron has created nearly 15 works per year in wood.

Enormously prolific, Ron has found a home for his works in many collections across the nation, including the Racine Art Museum, the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Yeiser Art Center, Berea College, and Chase Manhattan Bank to name only a few.

“My work stakes out a territory almost exactly halfway between painting and sculpture,” Ron explained as we examined an old painting and his first plywood construction. The move from Camel Ride, 1970 to Jigsaw No. 1, 1971 (the first wood construction) to Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973 clearly shows the artist’s growth toward his mature style. Where heavy black line once unified disparate elements, considerable finesse and a good deal of sanding are now employed to unite later compositions.

Camel Ride, 1970, acrylic on canvas and wood, 30″ x 22″

Jigsaw No. 1, 1971, Acrylic on fir plywood construction. 28 1/2″ x 26″ x 2 1/2″ Collection of Bert and Cherie Mutersbaugh

Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973, acrylic on fir plywood construction and coat hanger, 42″ x 30″ x 6 1/2″



In the end, his goal is to trick the eye, but unlike traditional trompe l’oeil painters, the illusion of real objects is not Ron’s primary concern. “The illusion is an interesting and useful byproduct of my attempt to make a strong image that has the authority of direct observation.  If the illusion fails, which it always ultimately does either sooner or later, you still have an image to respond to, which is pretty much what you get with any painting or sculpture.”

Why would a trompe l’oeil artist want the illusion to fail? This is one of Isaacs’ chief strategies: he sets out to render something ‘real’ and then interrupts our impression with metamorphosis or paradox – turning the final construction to a thing more surreal.

In the series of images below, the process of creating these works is illustrated. Ron moves from the composition of real objects on a grid board, to tracing paper patterns with detailed instructions for the final shapes, to contour line patterns, then transfers these shapes to varying thicknesses of birch plywood, sawing, sanding and the gluing, to compose a final form.

Trained as a formalist, composition is one of Ron’s major concerns, as his works take on freer shapes on the wall. He understands that negative space is as important as the form and shape of each of the objects included. This construction was in its beginning phase on my first visit and completed on my second, one week later. It is titled Just a Thought and is just 8 1/2 inches tall by fifteen wide.

Juxtaposing man-made garments and natural objects in most of his constructions, Ron delves deeper into the mysteries of both; for him this combination reminds us of our relationship with nature – “either being a part of it or apart from it.” Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008 and Birdies, 2015 bears witness to these dueling realities.

Ron also admits to liking the fact that, “the garment is fixed in time and the leaves are anytime.” Although he rarely works on more than one construction at a time, he will, when necessary, turn to a natural object that will eventually fade or die and recreate it for use in a future work.

The vintage garments, on the other hand, have a more stable shelf life and Ron’s friends like to joke that he has more dresses hanging around than his wife. For Ron, these garments have rich structures, colors, and shapes which lend themselves to endless design possibilities. “They continue the life of the past into the present, and they function in my work as anthropomorphic presences which become effective stand-ins for the human figure.”

Ron Isaacs,"Alter Ego (Waterfall), birch plywood construction prior to painting

Alter Ego (Waterfall) in process, 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Ron Isaacs, "Alter Ego (Waterfall)"

Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

"Birdies"

Birdies, Finnish birch construction, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

"Birdies," 2015

Birdies, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

“Trompe l’oeil (‘fool the eye’) could be a gimmick for an artist to show off technical skills, a fairly shallow if entertaining enterprise, but its devices seem an appropriate response to my love of the visual world.  I am still enamored with the old simple discovery of resemblance, the first idea of art after tools and shelter:  It means that an object or image made of one material can share the outward appearance and therefore some of the ‘reality’ of another.”

Sticks are crucial. In design terms, a stick is basically a line for Ron Isaacs; he frequently uses them to draw forms as in Alter Ego and Metaphor.

"Metaphor," 2005

Metaphor, 2005, 24″ x 51 1/4″ x 8″

Ron does not consider himself a conceptual artist, but I couldn’t help but see a bit of ideation playing equal part to the aesthetics in works like Coincidence from 2014. In fact, this composition had more to do with his sense of humor than anything much deeper; he commented, “It was even more fun, when the actual stick – the inspiration for both of my sticks – was still around.” Quoting from American writer and poet Joyce Kilmer’s short poem titled ‘Trees’ from 1913, Ron humbly states:

Maybe, ‘Only God can make a tree’, but I can make a pretty good stick.

"Coincidence," 2014

Coincidence, 2014, 2 parts; 26″ x 9″ x 1 1/2″, overall

Ron considers his job is to make things that are evocative and allow viewers to interpret his works as they will. While not all easily accessible, ‘simplicity’ and ‘directness’ are two terms used by Rick Snyderman, Principle of Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia, when describing Ron’s works (catalogue essay to accompany Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D). Isaacs connects the viewer in tight constructs, but never requires a specific interpretation. The content is open content.

Muted gray, brown, and off-white are favorites in Isaacs’ palette. Just a Thought is a good example. However, given that all of this is to challenge himself, he will work in bolder colors as in Recurring Dream in Red from 2011. If a particular object requires that he push himself, he turns always to his judgment and artistic licensure. Ron does all of this because he must; he cannot really say in words exactly why. His works are visual poems, frequently quoting American realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper:

If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

Recurring Dream in Red, 2011, 36 1/4″ x 55″ x 3 1/2 Collection of Michael and Christine Huskisson

If only you could say it in words. “I combine imagery, often using paradoxical interruptions and metamorphoses, in hopes of creating visual ‘poems’ of sorts; these suggest metaphors for the relationships of human life and nature, memory, and the passage of time.” In fact, the inspiration for Improve Each Shining Hour from 2010 is a poem by Isaac Watts titled How Doth the Little Busy Bee.

Mediating the artistic experience in words is, we all know, a difficult thing to do. So, thank you, Ron for improving each hour by bringing to us these masterful compositions. May they sit forever on our shelves of life.

"Improve Each Shining Hour," 2010

quote

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower! How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

– Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

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Ron is represented in Kentucky by Heike Pickett Gallery in Versailles.

The artist’s retrospective Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D was held in the fall of 2011 at the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College.

Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums

Patrick Adams: Lights Mystery 

Patrick McNeese in Scene&Heard

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Hemp and the Future of Fashion

The Future of Fashion 2020 show is coming to Lexington on the evenings of March 13-14, with a focus on designs incorporating hemp fabrics. In an interview for the March 5 edition of Eastern Standard on WEKU, I spoke with fashion designer, community activist, and organizer Soreyda Benedit Begley. Click on the image below to listen.

Soreyda Benedit Begley | Photo by Chris Begley

Images courtesy of Soreyda Benedit Begley

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Hot Cross Buns

Growing up, my family always celebrated Mardi Gras.  We actually always celebrated every holiday: Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s, back when they were separately noted, cherry pies and log cabin cakes.  St. Patrick’s Day too, but Mardi Gras was a crowning occasion in the year long fetes. My dad would go all out decorating the house in home-grown Carnival style.  Crepe paper and balsa wood construction would be suspended from the ceiling, streamers and noisemakers, tambourines and maracas would be distributed throughout the house and raucous costumes would be designed.  Many of our celebrations were just for the family, but Mardi Gras was an invited guest soiree, costumes expected.

Why am I going on about Mardi Gras as we approach Easter?  Because of the colors.  We would suspend a large flag decorated in the purple, yellow and green of the holiday in our hallway to greet the guests as they arrived.  And I watch each spring as nature unfurls banners in the same colors to greet me on my walks.  Yellow forsythias or daffodils, yellow-rumped warblers and jonquils.  The greenest green of a Kentucky spring morning dotted with purple violets and the magenta of redbuds. The trees, so long stripped to their winter vestments, austere and stark, grow shaggy with bud, then seemingly overnight become misted with the pale greens of newborn leaves.

The smells too, fragrant after the long chill of winter.  The warming air is redolent with the aroma of damp earth and the faint perfume of the flowering trees.  After a rain, worms litter the sidewalks like pine needles.  Robins hop and sing, trilling their pleasure at the abundance of good living that is present.  It is a time when coats are unbuttoned, then abandoned.  Thoughts turn to yard work, then picnics.  It is a time for putting the remains of last year away in compost piles and preparing our space, ourselves for the new growth.

So too it is with baking.  Our focus becomes a lightness befitting the season.  Some of the substantial loaves of winter give way to the airier breads of spring.  Reserved and sensible yields to fun and flippant.  Fruit tarts which seem cold and out of place in our winter’s showcase now glow with the vibrancy of spring.  The warm morning sun streaming in the windows illuminate the danish, making them sparkle like God’s breakfast.  And one of my favorite breads of the year emerges from the recipe cupboard where seasonal products are stored: hot cross buns.  

These light, airy jewels of a bread are a wonderful blend of spice and sweet.  The are “hot” because of the spices in them. We use cloves and nutmeg, spices usually reserved for pies, and the resulting aromatic flavor surprises and delights the palate.  They can be decorated on the top with a cross cut in them, with a cross of short crust pastry dough laid on top at baking time or with a cross of icing applied after they cool.  I prefer the last as it adds just the right amount of sweet.

As bakers, we are given the gift of embellishing the seasons, adding to the moments that brighten our lives.   Whether it be a daily morning slice of crackly crunchy toast, a cookie for a snack, a pie for Thanksgiving or the ultimate, the cake to be sliced at the joyous joining of two lives onto one path, ours is a profession which gets to share in the delights of living.  And products like hot cross buns are once yearly exclamation points.

Hot Cross Buns

This is a soft dough, easily mixed by hand or by stand mixer.  The final dough will be soft, supple and a bit tacky.  When rolling the dough into the bun shape, be stingy with the flour; you want it to stick a bit to the table.

All Purpose Flour 4 cups

Sugar½ cup

Salt 1 tsp.

Instant Dry Yeast 1 packet (2 tsp.)

Ground Nutmeg ½ tsp.

Ground Cloves ¾ tsp.

Unsalted Butter, Melted 1 stick (4 oz.)

Milk, Warmed 1 cup

Eggs, Large 2

Dried Fruits 1 ½ cups (some combination of raisins, chopped apricots, dried     cherries, dates, dried pineapple…)

Add all dry ingredients in mixing bowl, either hand bowl or mixer. 

Add all liquids and begin mixing, either with a wooden spoon or with the hook attachment of the mixer.

Mix until it is a cohesive, somewhat sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, you will want to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and supple.

Add the dried fruit and mix just to combine.

Put into greased, covered bowl and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 18-20 pieces.  

Round into tight balls.  Place on baking tray and cover, let rise till doubled, about one hour.

Place into preheated 350 degree oven and bake 16-18 minutes, until golden brown and firm.

While they are cooling, make the icing:

Two cups powdered sugar

¼ cup milk

Mix until the consistency of firm honey.  If it is too wet, add more powdered sugar, too dry, more milk.

With a pastry bag or spoon, draw a cross on top of each of the cooled buns.  Let the icing set then enjoy!

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A Baker’s Almanac: The Moods of March

A surprisingly effective snow fell the other day, wrapping the yellow buds of daffodils and honeysuckle in cotton.  After the tantalizing warmth of the week prior, this cold was not welcomed, though it was beautiful.  We eagerly anticipate the gentle air of spring, full of scent and promise, ready to be done with the chill of winter, but nature seems nonplussed, regardless of conditions.  In winter, when all nature seems tucked up and waiting, a magical growth is occurring. 

If we can pull our faces from out of the burrow of our scarves, we will see the greens of moss and lichens are every bit as lush as the verdant carpet of spring, maybe more so for the paucity of other color.  This is the time they grow, capturing more territory, reveling in just the right clime for their blossoming.  The stone walls and tree trunks seem to glow with a rich spectrum of green, from soft yellow lime to the deep dark of a pine forest.

In spring, the growth is explosive, almost visible.  The lichens’ growth is sedate, slow, befitting the harsher clime.  It is a more somber environment.  I have a mantra which, when I am in my right mind, I live by: If you want extraordinary experiences, you need to put yourself in extraordinary circumstances.  I have a habit of bundling up in inclement weather and stepping out to see what I have not before.  This day, the lichens seemed to glow even more electric green,  a luxuriant counter to the flowing white mist that fell.  The mockingbird that had been announcing the arrival of spring in joyous notes in the morning gloaming sang just as jubilant after the snow, just not as frequently, seeming to need to gather his will between songs.  The air in the neighborhood was thick and muted during the snowfall, like walking into a cathedral.

This is a truculent time, fluctuating between periods of glorious, buttery warmth and gusty, stinging cold.  The festivities of the season also reflect this.  The opulent revelries of Mardi Gras are followed by the austerities of Lent, the emotional swings as dramatic as the weather.  Like the fabled groundhog predicting winter’s fate, Mardi Gras seems to be a moment of exuberance in anticipation of the joys of spring.  But tempered by the cold realities of the slowness of the seasons, the preparation of land and soul for the coming rebirth is measured and slow.  The playful excess of a King’s Cake is succeeded by Lenten sparsity.  Though, to our pleasure, this is somewhat mitigated by a fine and simple bread with the attitude of a pastry.

A tender blending of flour and butter, leavened with soda and buttermilk, with raisins as a kicker, Irish Soda Bread seems the perfect bread for this time of life.  Heavy enough to be substantial, crumbly as a newly furrowed field, it serves equally well as breakfast or dinner fare. And like all simple baked goods, technique is where the magic lies.

As anyone who has taken on pie dough or biscuits knows, a light touch makes the difference.  The butter is cut into the flour, brief mixing leaving pea-sized pieces of butter mottled through the dough.  These jewels of flavor melt down in the oven, creating a honeycombed structure that crumbles deliciously in the mouth.  Whether sliced to accompany a rich Irish stew or cut into wedges to enjoy, scone-like, in the morning, this bread proves the maxim that simple pleasures are the best.

One of the joys of a cold winter’s walk is the return home.  As I arrived at my door, I brushed the boutonniere of snow festooning my lapel and stepped into the house.  I was greeted by a murmuring fire, the purr of my coffee pot and the delicious pleasure of some sweet cream butter melting slowly on a wedge of soda bread.  Like the gradual warming of the world outside, the heat of my house at last penetrated, allowing me to unbundle and relax, preparing me for whatever lay in store.

Irish Soda Bread

All Purpose Flour     4 cups

Baking Soda      1 ½ tsp.

Salt 1 tsp.

Granulated Sugar 3 Tbls.

Unsalted Butter 1 ½ sticks (6 oz.)

Raisins 2 cups

Buttermilk 1 ½ cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  This recipe comes together qickly.

Measure all dry ingredients into large mixing bowl. 

Cut chilled butter into ½ inch cubes.

“Massage” the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles a collection of small peas.

Stir in the raisins.

Make a well in the bowl and add the buttermilk all at once.  Stir until it just comes together.  It will resemble a shaggy mass. 

Place onto lightly floured surface and pat into one large or two smaller discs about an inch thick.

Transfer to cookie sheet.  If you have two sheets, double pan the bread to keep the bottom from over browning

Cut a cross into the top of the loaf (loaves) and place into oven.  One loaf bake for 32 minutes, 2 loaves bake them for 25 minutes.

Remove from oven when golden brown and somewhat firm.  Cool slightly then eat copiously!

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Fear of Falling

I watched a White-Throated Sparrow follow his cohorts into a bush this morning.  He flitted in fast, grabbed a branch with too much speed.  He couldn’t stick the landing and so launched himself off to the next bush without hesitation.  It was an innocuous event, something that happens without comment all the time.  In fact, had it occurred otherwise I would have been surprised.  Birds routinely launch themselves from this branch to that wire, land or don’t, stay or don’t, with apparent disregard for any consequence.  And this cavalier attitude they have regarding gravity I find intriguing. I have long wondered about the mindset of birds, what it must be like to have no fear of falling.

As a young man, I had the good fortune to work at a self-empowerment program which had an outdoor ropes course element to it.  One of my duties there was to work at the rappel site, sending people of all ages over an 80 foot cliff.  Many of these people had never done anything like this before; some were terrified of heights.  Yet all had taken this program as a way of conquering their fears.  And the rappel was just the exercise to help them with that.

Everything about rappelling challenges core beliefs.  I would take 50 year old people, out of shape and out of their elements, gear them up in harness and rope, then walk them to the edge of the world.  Frequently we would creep the last few feet together, arm clutched hard to arm.  I would them tell them to turn, put their back to the cliff, their feet on the edge, and lean back.  There is something so fundamentally wrong with that that the mind can’t help but rebel.  It goes against everything your momma ever told you to do.  To properly rappel, you basically walk backwards down the cliff, your back parallel with the ground far below.  The rope keeps you from falling and the interplay between rope, feet and rock keep you from face planting, but only if you lean back nearly horizontal.

All your upbringing and instincts scream that this is the wrong thing to do, that you should hug the rope and nestle up to the rock face.  I’m sure there is even some biological imperative shouting from deep within your DNA that stepping backwards off a cliff is a very bad way to further the species.  Yet over the cliff they went, young and old, scared and bold, to safely arrive, jubilant and accomplished, at the bottom 80 feet away.

I had the cherished job of talking them through the technique, through their fears, allowing them to discover a greater sense of capability and freedom.  Initially what was present was fear.  As I worked with them, slowly my voice would penetrate and what would occur was listening followed by trust followed by relationship finishing with love.  There is something embedded in the act of surrendering to another that opens us up.  Its no surprise that we talk about falling in love.  It is scary.  To trust another with your vulnerable heart is like leaning backwards over a cliff.  What comes from that is a release, a joy, a feeling of floating, making you want to bounce down the cliff, gamboling like a mountain goat.  

We celebrate this with our traditions on St. Valentine’s Day.  Bright and shiny, heart shaped and poetic, we express ourselves with candy and flowers.  There is a sweetness to it, rich and enrobing.  True love, like good chocolate, melts in your mouth.

Bete Noire

This flourless chocolate cake, whose name means Black Beast in French, is sinfully rich, tasting like chocolate butter.  It is baked in a water bath ensuring its creaminess.  Simply assembled, it will score you big points with the love of your life!

!/2 cup water

1 cup sugar

12 oz. dark, semisweet chocolate

8 oz. unsalted butter

5 eggs

3 Tbls sugar

In a saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat.

Add chocolate and butter and gently warm to melt.

In a bowl, whisk eggs and remaining sugar to combine.  

Stir into chocolate/butter mixture.

Pour into greased 8 inch cake pan.

Place onto a baking sheet pan and put into preheated 350 degree oven.

Pour water onto sheet pan to come halfway up the cake pan.

Bake for about 40-45 minutes, until cake is firmly set and a paring knife inserted comes out clean.

Remove from heat. Take off pan of water, being extremely careful not to burn yourself.

Let cool 30-60 minutes, until just room temperature.

Run a knife around the edge, invert a dish over the pan, flip it upside down and gently tap to release.

Wrap with plastic and chill. May be done a day ahead.  In fact, it works better.

This cake is super rich.  Serve stingy slices floating on raspberry sauce or serve with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

Enjoy!

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Winter Wheat

Winter in Kentucky is slowly becoming my favorite season. Like most people, I find the cold intrusive, the bulky clothes annoying and the gruff transitions from inside to outside and back again disruptive, but once I commit myself to being out in nature, a walk in a park or even around the neighborhood, I find the starkness revealing.

One of my objections to this land is one of its strongest traits: an almost strangling fecundity. The woods in the summer are so verdant and lush, seeing the forest for the leaves becomes difficult. But in the fall, and especially the winter, the trees reveal their stately countenance. The naked profile of a leafless tree against a snowy backdrop reveals the character of the tree, the story of the tree. In the gaudy greenery of their springtime finery, the trees glow with youthful frippery. But come winter, when the over mantles are cast off, we are left to wonder at the limbs, the heart, the bones.

In the neighborhood next to mine live some trees that are literally hundreds of years old. The architect who purchased the land and first started building houses in the area in the mid-30’s designed the road to wind past the towering Chinquapin Oaks that had settled in that spot long before the coming of us. And they dominate the land even today. Gnarled, broken, they stand in grand testament to perseverance and flexibility. Around them are their newer neighbors: Pin oaks and Sycamores and Tulip Poplars, all stripped to the bone of leaf and flower, all revealing their skeletal structure. I used to feel the trees looked sad, vulnerable in their winter sparsity, but now I see the bold strength, the history, the tenacity of their quest for light, for moisture, for growth. From a distance, the trunk and branch look like the vein pattern of an individual leaf. Up close, the vast strength and solidity of the years is revealed.

So too with the creeks. The record volume of water that has fallen this past year has highlighted their presence, the channels forming on the floor of my leaky basement standing in sodden testament to this. More and more I see how this land is intimately shaped by water. The little and big creeks stitch together the landscape like veins on a leaf, like branches on a winter’s tree. And through the sparse foliage of winter, I am discovering the hidden convolutions of the waterways of the Bluegrass.

On one of the many fine, beautiful country roads which wrap around Lexington, there is a bridge I like to stop at, the intersection of land and water, man and nature being gently revealed. As I step from my car to briefly revel in the gentle glory, I am struck by how accessible the peace of nature is to us here. Today as I walked up to the bridge, at the convergence of two creeks merging to form the Elkhorn, the sun seeped through the clouds and the insistent current seemed to pull the wan sunlight downstream with it. Glassine pillows of water flowed over submerged rocks to fall in a jumble at the bottom of the slope. Heretofore hidden feeder creeks emerged, the gauzy shroud of summer shrubbery dropped to reveal the moist gullies beneath. As I stood there, letting sound and air wash over me, I felt sedation, a slowing of space.

There is a pulling back, a pulling in that comes with winter. The trees stand resolute, their strong, intimate branches revealed in their grand, naked gavotte with gravity. Squirrels shroud themselves in the shawls of their tails. Birds puff up like dandelions, maximizing the insulation of their elegantly efficient feathers. Even our cat is around more, enjoying the warm bath of air from the heater more than his solitude. It is a slower, more languid time; it is a good time for baking bread.

Baking bread at home is one of the most basic and sensuous of pleasures. The smell of the flour and yeast, the sticky texture of the initial mass giving way to the smooth firm ball of properly kneaded dough, the warmth of the oven, the perfume of the baking loaf, all transform a cold winter’s day into a celebration of hearth and home. It is a personal activity which gives richly to all lucky enough to be in the space. And it is easy; with care and patience the alchemical transformation from base ingredients into culinary gold is always achievable, though sometimes with better results than others. And the results keep giving.

The usual recipe for bread gives two to three loaves, allowing for inhalation of the first warm, redolent loaf and the slower consumption of the next over the following days. Like any activity, more practice leads to better results. And in this time of pulling in and nesting, exercising and resolving, it is one which will lead to a greater sense of peace and fulfillment.

Jim’s Recipe for Winter Wheat Bread:

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour

3 cups White Bread Flour

1 packet Instant Yeast

1 tablespoon Salt

2 tablespoons Sorghum or Molasses or Honey

Generous 2 cups room temperature Water.

Combine all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add sweetener, then water.

Stir with wooden spoon until a shaggy mass is formed.

Turn out onto counter or bread board and knead about 5 minutes, until a smooth, taut ball is formed.

Place ball in oiled mixing bowl, cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Punch down and divide into 2 pieces.

Form into balls and place on cornmeal covered sheet pan, or place into greased bread pans.

Cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, 45-60 minutes. (Preheat oven to 375)

Place into oven and bake 30-35 minutes.  When done, the bottom will ring like a drum when thumped.

Remove from oven.  Let cool as long as you can.  Eat with your favorite soup or spread.

When fully cool, wrap other loaf, if you still have it, and store for later use.

Enjoy!

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A Baker’s Almanac: Tales of Simple Goodness

I started baking in college, first in a food co-op, then in my off-campus house.  Living with 5 other college-aged kids meant we ate a lot, giving me ample opportunity to experiment; it was common practice to polish off a standard batch of two to three loaves in a couple of days.  My first baking book was The Garden Way Bread Book, though it lives in my memory by its subtitle: A Baker’s Almanac.  I was intrigued by its promise of a yearly guide to the glories of baking.  In it were the recipes which were to be the crucible for the concoction that would become my life: being a baker.

There is a flow to the year, one to which all beings adhere, bakers notwithstanding.  The new year starts with the pop of a champagne cork but quickly settles into a more austere mindset, one which favors hearty, healthy breads.  After a brief fling with chocolate in February, we trundle on, anticipating the lightness of being which is spring, the abundance of delectable fresh produce which is summer, the robust foods of autumn and the arrival of the sumptuous holidays.  All to be rounded by that pop once again which is both start and death knell. 

In a very unsystematic way,  I will be writing a monthly bit of lore and insight I’ve gained over 38 years of baking.  I have seen the smooth transition from hippie-inspired home baking to rock star restaurants touting stunning pastries and desserts to once again a return to what I like to think of as local materials, honestly expressed.  With history and the seasons as my guide, I hope to entertain, inform and inspire, and each essay will conclude with a user friendly recipe.

What follows is the first installment.  I hope you enjoy!

§

I have long been a fan of fairy tales, simple fables with simple messages, peopled with colorful characters.  These stories entertain and enlighten and I have embraced their gentle teachings since a boy.  One of my favorites is the Elves and the Shoemaker.  This is a tale of simple goodness: a poor shoemaker, unable to produce goods of sufficient quantity or quality to pay for his living, is assisted by a pair of elves.  Unobserved, these mischievously helpful beings produce shoes for him overnight, shoes of surpassing quality which are left to be discovered when he awakens.  There is a gentle goodness, a selflessness, a giving that I find reaffirming.  It is no surprise I run a bakery.

A folklore-ish element suffuses all the goings on of a bakery.  The work of late nights produces wondrous comestibles to be discovered upon awakening.  Watching people come in and grab some something with which to brighten their day is the intangible payment for the long night’s work.  Never is that more clear than during the holidays.  Thanksgiving, with it’s pies and rolls, lays a warm autumnal blanket down upon which Christmas gaudily settles.  Bright, shining, colorful treats of stunning breadth emerge.  The goodies seem to embody the essence of elven work.

I dusted off my copy of The Italian Baker, one of my earliest and favorite baking books.  Filled with lore and culture and regional recipes, I enjoy going to that well again and again, especially when an Italian specialty is called for.  And now it’s Christmas time.  The time above all times when baking is called for, expected, trundled out and anticipated.  Cultures and peoples all over the world pull out their best, to wow and celebrate family and friends.  Long before the coming of Christianity, the end of December had been celebrated.  The Solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs then.  I suspect if I was going to have a party in the middle of the dark and cold, I’d pick the longest night of the year, figuring we could break into the larder and ransack treasured bits of the bounty of summer, for it would be all about the return of spring from then on.  Fruitcake, jam cake, pies, and preserved meats, all come out to mark the end of the dark and the coming of the light.

And what better way to celebrate than with warm, rich, succulent baked goods?  The English have their Christmas pudding, the southern U.S., their jam cake, the German their stollen (more completely known as Christstollen, the lumpy shape and blanket of powdered sugar said to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling), the French their buche de Noel, the Italian panettone, hence the book I had been holding earlier.  Studded with fruit and spice, it, like its brethren from around the world represent the best in celebration.

Christstollen being assembled: butter, loaf, marzipan, folding and then the final product, covered with powdered sugar.

I view most of these items from the perspective of the professional baker, someone who’s business depends on Jesus Christ, Patron Saint of 4th Quarter Profits.  But the realm of the home baker holds strong through December as well.  I maintain there is hardly a person around who doesn’t remember holiday baking in Granny’s kitchen, even if they never did, so strong is the sentiment surrounding this time.  My mom made cookies and candy.  Wedding cookies, cherry chews (nee cherry winks, dubbed cherry coconut bars), chocolate almond caramel crunch, and butter cookies (see recipe, below.)

Christmas butter cookies

Light, rich, redolent with butter and melt-in-your-mouth tender, these little nothings of pleasure were always my favorite.  The line between perfect and also-ran was fine, the anticipation and reverence while baking, angel food cake like.  When they were made, lightly mixed, squeezed out in just the right shape from some Buck Rogers cookie press, baked to golden tenderness and allowed to cool for only the briefest of time, the experience of that cookie dissolving in your mouth was sublime.  The only time we had these was at Christmas, the rarity increasing the value.  I know we were not alone in this.  There seems to be an endless stream of family favorites and grandma’s specialties.  And for this I give thanks. 

§

Cora Anna Banta Betts’s Butter Cookie Recipe

As presented to my mother, Jackie Betts, her first wedded Christmas.

1 cup (8 ounces) softened unsalted butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar

2 cups All purpose Flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

Sift together the flour and salt, add to butter/sugar mixture.

Stir in vanilla.

Push through cookie press onto a baking sheet, sprinkle colored sugar on top if desired.

Place in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, until golden brown on bottom, pale white on top.

Let cool, but barely.

Eat voluminously.

Makes about 50 small cookies.

The key to this recipe is a light touch.  Don’t overmix the flour with the butter.  Don’t over bake the cookie.  Gentle the whole way and they will be light and crumbly.  A pleasure in your mouth.

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I Am a Tourist Here

I took a roadtrip down to Levi Jackson State Park on Saturday.  No real agenda, no clear picture of where I was going to spend the night, what I was going to see, where I was going to go.  As I left Lexington, I had a sense of urgency, of needing to get there, heedless of not knowing where “there” was.  That continued until I got to Marksbury Farm Market just outside Lancaster on 27.  I stopped in for a sandwich and a chat and as I sat outside eating, I could feel the rush slip away.  I was a tourist.  I could stay there till dark, turn around and head home.  Or I could head on down to Levi Jackson pronto.  Or I could meander at a sedate pace, letting the beauty and charm of the land permeate. The words to a Bob Seger song kept popping into my head: “I could go left or I could go right; it was all up to me to decide.” I chose the latter and rolled on through the day.

I am not being completely truthful when I say I had no real agenda.  I was going down to see the mill stone museum located at Levi Jackson.  A hundred or so millstones from old Kentucky mills line the walk leading to an old mill.  What I didn’t realize was my original agenda was about to be subsumed by the conversation I was going to have with Bob House, docent and ranger of the rebuilt, fully operational mill located in the park.  I got there around 10.  He had just opened up the cabin and I eagerly pressed him for a tour.  The cabin and much of the furnishings had been built in 1805.  It was moved and rebuilt in it’s current location in the 1930’s, as part of the WPA.  And it had been operating there since.

Photo by author

The joys of simple technology!  When Bob opened the water gate (My favorite bumpersticker from the Nixon era: “Behind every water gate is a mill house.”  Get it?!), the creek was allowed to flow over the turbine (not a side mounted wheel, but a “true turbine,” according to Bob) and the foot-diameter axle began slowly to turn.  Attached to that axle is a wheel, some 4 feet around, and wrapping that is a 10-inch wide belt of leather which goes to the front of the cabin, looping around a much smaller circumferenced wheel and back.  The smaller wheel is attached to two giant stone discs, very heavy (“I don’t know how heavy they are, I ain’t never weighed them.  But I know that 4 grown men can’t pick them up.  We have people come in at night to steal them.  They can stand them up and roll them to the parking lot, but they can’t lift them into their truck.”).  Let’s say 1000 pounds.  The belt which takes it’s languid time circling the big wheel fairly flies around the smaller one, causing the upper most stone to turn at an impressive speed.  Grain, in this case corn, is loaded into the hopper mounted over the mill stone casing (a circular wooden box which keeps the grain from flying out as it is ground by the stones) and is shaken into the opening as needed.  The grain is pulverized into flour and slides down a wooden chute into a wooden trough, where Bob packs it into cloth bags containing two pounds of fresh milled cornmeal.  

Photo by author

The entire machine is made (with extraordinary few exceptions) of wood, stone, hide.  It is incredibly efficient and works in a wondrously harmonious relationship with its surroundings.  Bob said that even the small dam needed for the operation of the mill helps balance the ecosystem.  The backed-up creek environment, favored by birds, turtles, fish used to be supplied by industrious beavers.  But we hunted most of them, so the mill is doing their work.  The sound of the mill while it is in operation is practical, soothing, organic. A hum of the earth, of tree and rock and water moving in harmony.  It probably took 10 minutes for the mill to grind the two pounds of flour, but it could do that all day and night, with very little supervision, forever.  Efficient, serene, perfect technology.  I left there with the same feeling I get walking through the woods.  Of being at peace and feeling at one with the world.  The technology didn’t separate man from nature, it bound the two more tightly.

I rode home with my two pounds of fresh milled, unbolted corn meal.  I had asked many questions and been given a vast array of knowledge: ecology, economics, machine design, politics…  I had gone to look at mill stones and had come away with milling. 

The mantra “I Am A Tourist Here” is one I have been trying on for a few months.  When traveling, I give myself permission to ask ridiculous questions from complete strangers and am usually intrigued and stunned by what I learn, safe in may guise as a tourist.  However, when I’m home I operate as if I should know, as if I shouldn’t be a tourist.  As if I shouldn’t take that untried road, or stop at that new place, or be inquisitive and naive as I am when I am touristing.  Just by reciting the mantra, the fardel of society slips from my shoulder and I am given permission to look at my familiar terrain with fresh eyes, an act which almost always yields delightful insight.

Photo by author

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Eyes to See

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.  I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.  This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky. 

I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.  I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness. 

I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land. 

I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.  We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.  The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.

I am not now that young man.  A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”  My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.  Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.  And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.

I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.  In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans. 

On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.  Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.  With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic. 

The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon. 

Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.  That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. 

I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.  The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.  Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same. 

I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.  The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival. 

My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.

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Breaking: Robert Mueller to be First Falcon Heavy Live Payload

On the heels of the highly successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Vehicle carrying a payload into space of a cherry red Tesla Sportster with a dummy driver, the White House today announced a series of upcoming launches by Elon Musk’s company. The program of launches, dubbed “You’re Out of This World!!”, will include the now-iconic cherry red Tesla Sportster with live humans in the drivers’ seats.

At a press briefing today, White House Press Secretary, Sara Huckabee Sanders identified Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, as the initial human payload. Huckabee Sanders explained that the ability of the SpaceX to accomplish quick turnarounds of launch vehicles made the company a desirable partner in this initiative, approved “at the highest level of government.” She anticipates that the Mueller launch might be “in a matter of weeks, if not days.”

In response to being pressed by Jim Acosta of CNN about the intent of the program, Huckabee Sanders vehemently denied that the program is intended to impede Special Counsel Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia. While admitting, in response to a follow-up question by Katy Tur of NBC News, that, “It is not anticipated that any of the human payloads will return to Earth,” she protested the news media’s propensity to frame administration initiatives in a highly negative manner. “I can’t believe that anyone would see the selection of these human payloads as anything but the highest honor that can be given to an American in this or any world,” Huckabee Sanders stated.

During the briefing, the list of subsequent payloads was distributed. Due up next for launch after Robert Mueller is Deputy Attorney General, Rob Rosenstein. That launch will be followed by one with U.S. Representative and ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, as the payload. Pornstar Stormy Daniels will be launched next because “We wanted someone from the world of entertainment.” In a somewhat surprising development, Devin Nunes, Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was listed provisionally as a launch candidate. Huckabee Sanders stated that his possible inclusion on the payload list is pending “how everything turns out.”

Huckabee Sanders also announced that the individuals launched into space would be honored during the military parade later this year, currently being planned at the highest level of the Pentagon. She stated that bringing up the rear of the parade will be a formation of cherry red driverless Tesla Sportsters, honoring “these brave Americans.” Others under consideration for future honors include Hillary Clinton and James Comey.

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News Bulletin: Body Politic in Intensive Care

August 3, 2017
Washington, D.C.

Doctors at the George Washington University Medical Center are reporting that the Body Politic has been admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit after arriving in the medical center’s emergency room in a near-comatose state. In a news briefing at the hospital, Dr. Herschel McLachlan, Medical Chief of Staff, reported that the Body Politic arrived last evening at the hospital’s emergency room in “extreme distress” with “significant, and life threatening systems failures” and “a near total collapse of vital functions”.

Attending emergency room physician, Dr. Sarah Rouseminheir, acknowledged the serious nature of the patient’s condition. Dr. Rouseminheir noted that it was apparent that the Body Politic appeared to be overwhelmed and incapable of responding effectively to the range and multiplicity of pressing issues such as climate change, Korea, economic displacement by automation, healthcare, and political chaos.

As soon as the Body Politic arrived emergency interventions to stabilize its condition were attempted, primarily through intravenous transfusions of multiple units of truth. While at first the treatment appeared to stabilize the patient, Dr. McLachlan reported that in short order violent seizures and rejection of the intravenous truth fluids ensued followed by repeated and uncontrollable attempts by the Body Politic to turn on the television in the emergency room to watch The Bachelorette. The patient was then transferred to the ICU for further diagnosis and treatment.

Attending ICU physician, Dr. Sean Aboujou, indicated that it is anticipated that the treatment of the Body Politic is just beginning but that there will no doubt need to be a course of long-term rehabilitation after the acute care phase. A number of significant specific conditions have been identified. The Body Politic has been diagnosed with Corpus Interruptus, a condition wherein the corpus callosum of the patient appears to be blocked, thus preventing the right and left sides of the Body Politic’s brain from effectively communicating.

Scaramuccimania, a condition named after its discoverer and rarely seen until recently, and characterized by repeated frenetic attempts to perform anatomically impossible acts on oneself, has also been diagnosed. During Dr. Aboujou’s presentation about Scaramuccimania, one physician in the press room was overheard saying, “Looks like the Body Politic has really f___ked itself over, so I don’t know about anatomically impossible”.

The treatment team is also looking into alternative treatments for the Body Politic’s well-known conditions of Empiricalaphobia and Ignorance Profundus.

Political leaders responded quickly to the news of the Body Politic’s hospital admission. Vice President Pence led a congressional delegation in a prayer circle at the hospital. Senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement, “My prayers are with the Body Politic. That is if I believed in prayer. This news brings more urgency to the need for a single brain system”.

The White House issued a brief statement:
“It’s a big problem, the Body Politic. They don’t have it in Russia. Just saying”.

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A Split Second in San Francisco

That particular week in 2016 had started off brilliantly. I was in San Francisco for a work conference, and it was October, which might be the most beautiful time to be in San Francisco.

A friend had traveled with me, so while I conferenced, she explored. On that particular day, I sat among thousands of others inside a giant convention center as Melinda Gates and Robin Roberts discussed leadership and women’s empowerment and chasing our dreams.

Then I decided to look at my phone. Waiting there was a text from one of my best friends: Her melanoma was back. It had been seven years. The word metastasized was there among all the other words.

The sounds around me – the motivating stories, the applause, the laughter from the audience – it all faded to a dull roar and it felt as if no one was in the auditorium but me and that text. The tears wouldn’t stop; I was never more thankful for the darkness. Questions, I had nothing but questions for her. What did the doctor say exactly? Are you alone right now? Should I catch a flight home? Have you been feeling sick and not telling anyone?

Is this it?

In sickness and in health isn’t reserved only for the betrothed. If we’re lucky in life, along the way we connect with other souls whose friendships grow to mean so much to us that even a legal ceremony – the highest form of commitment – could barely scrape the surface of defining the bond. That’s what I have with this woman. She’s beyond sister status. For the past 16 years, since we were freshmen in college, she’s been part of my soul.

This couldn’t be it.

Later that day, in between conference sessions, I paced up and down the city streets, listening to her tell me everything she knew about her situation. She had woken up that day thinking her biggest dilemma was where to have lunch after her doctor’s appointment. Now she was trying to decide what hospital in which city she should trust with her life.

Standing on the corner of Post and Kearny streets, I offered to marry her so she could use my health insurance. She laughed, and so did I, but we both knew.

The next evening, after a rough night’s sleep and a day full of conference sessions, I was headed to yet another dinner and drinks with colleagues, the idea of which sounded just awful. Then the friend I had traveled to San Francisco with called and said she was at the ocean. And that it sure was nice out there.

The sidewalk was filled with rush-hour traffic. I made my way over to the side and stood still. For the first time in my life, I asked myself: If this was your last night on Earth, how would you spend it?

Screw it.

In five minutes, I was sitting on the Geary Street bus headed west. It smelled of sweat and cologne and I was smashed up against the window next to someone talking loudly on their phone.

My heart soared.

A half hour later the bus was nearly empty as we reached the last stop on the route, 48th and Point Lobos avenues.

The smell of the ocean hit my face as I stepped off the bus, and I started to run down the sidewalk. Toward the Pacific, toward the incredible setting sun. Toward where my sweet friend would choose to be if she had that choice.

It would be selfish of me to say that the terrible thing that happened to my friend happened to me. But it did change me. And I haven’t asked myself, “If this was your last night on Earth, how would you spend it?” It comes naturally now. When I stand up for myself, when I say “no,” when I don’t give in to my fear, and when I say “yes.” Hell yes.

My sweet friend, by the way, is okay. Turns out, this isn’t it.

The photos I took that evening still make me cry. And I can still feel that moment when my heart and mind shifted and hear the sounds of the city that were all around me.

But I never told her about any of this. Maybe I’ll take her to San Francisco and just show her.

Abby lives in Lexington with her boyfriend Eric and their poodle Mikey. When she isn’t busy being digital marketing manager at KET, she loves travel, writing, coffee, the ocean, fishing, and biking around Lexington. There is more where this came from. Check out Abby’s blog.

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Interview With A Chocolate Cake

During the recent state visit of Chinese President Xi Jingping, President Trump entertained his state visitor at the fabled, elegant, and romantic Mar-a-Lago Country Club, as described in a State Department travel brochure. During dinner, as the two men were eating dessert, President Trump informed President Xi that he had ordered a cruise missle attack on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against unarmed civilians in a rebel-held town.

In an interview with a giggly Fox Business anchor, Maria Bartiromo, Trump recounted the incident, emphasizing the role that “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” played in this extremely high-level statecraft. Below is the link to that interview excerpt.

UnderMain has obtained exclusive interview rights with Chocolate Cake, and recently sat down for a conversation with the now-famous delectable.

UM: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Chocolate Cake.

CC: No problem. This is a yuuge deal for me, maybe the biggest ever for a piece of food.

UM: How did you get involved with the Trump administration?

CC: I’ve known Donny, I mean the president, for a long time. Me and him go way back. When he bought Mar-a-Lago, he told the chef at that time, and we’ve been through many chefs since then. Some of the best, greatest chefs in the world in the years that President Trump has owned the place. And all the chefs wanna be there, they’re all fighting to get into that kitchen. Because they all wanna cook in a classy place, and now for the president. You can’t believe it. That’s why people will pay anything to get into that club.

UM: You started to say how you and the president go way back.

CC: That’s right. When he bought the club he told the chef then, and right from the start the chefs have been the best in the world. He told the chef that he wanted the greatest desserts on the menu, especially a big, moist, elegant chocolate cake that everyone would say is the best piece of chocolate cake they have ever had. They tried lots of recipes and picked me, as I knew they would, because I am so far above all those other cakes it’s not even funny. People eat me and say, “Stop, you’re too delicious. I can’t stand it!”.

UM: Okay, so how did you get involved in our diplomatic efforts?

CC: Well, when the president got into office, one of the first things they did, and who could believe that a chocolate cake would be such an important piece of the whole picture? They got rid of a lot of people at the State Department. I mean, there’s hardly anybody there. Tillerson is hardly there, and when he is he’s talking to his buddies in Russia. Anyway, they started an Edibles Division and gave us a whole floor.

UM: A whole floor of the State Department?

CC: Yeah, don’t sound so suprised! So I have an office, a beautiful office. Has a view of the Lincoln Monument. Meatloaf is next to me. Fried Chicken, Well-Done Steak, Ketchup. We all have offices. And they did a lot of research, some of the biggest researchers on food in the country, to see what the average diet is for a ten-year-old boy. And it lines up perfectly with what President Trump likes. I hear Hamburger’s coming, and Pizza Without The Crust, Diet Soda. We might end up being the biggest division there. And you know, when the president is dining with people he always tells them what to eat, so we gotta be really big.

UM: He orders for them?

CC: Yeah, and of course he even won’t let Christie order a piece of me.

UM: So did he order you for President Xi of China?

CC: Absolutely! Now I have to tell you that Xi is a very serious man. I mean he’s the president of China. I don’t know if you know this but China has the most people in the world. Amazing! So President Trump insists that President Xi have a piece of Chocolate Cake.

UM: So what happened then (giggling)?

CC: They bring pieces of me out of the kitchen to serve to both presidents. And I get this look from President Trump like if I don’t come through he’ll say, “You’re fired!”. Even though I know the guy never fires anybody. Couldn’t even fire Flynn. Anyway I knew it was my big moment, like I said, maybe the biggest moment ever for a piece of food. And I always remember what my grandfather, Chocolate Torte, told me about being served to important people. “Ya gotta grab ’em by the taste buds. And then they’ll let you do anything to them.” Very important lesson when I was just a chocolate muffin.

UM: How did this play out with President Xi?

CC: Well, the FAKE NEWS of course hardly covered this. Because they don’t know what’s really going on. But when Xi tore, and I mean really tore into me, he couldn’t stop eating. It was the greatest thing. Because as he was doing that, Trump tells him about the missles into Iraq…

UM: Syria.

CC: Yeah, Syria. And it all went down smooth as a baby’s tush. And we closed the deal. Not a peep from Xi. He just kept eating. I think it’ll go down as the greatest deal ever closed over dessert. And then it was done. Sayonara, Xi.

UM: That’s Japanese.

CC: Whatever, its all the same.

UM: How did the evening end for you?

CC: So’s after its all over President Trump comes back to the kitchen and tells me I did real good. And he says he’s gonna get me on the Food Channel and he guarantees that I’ll get the highest ratings ever for a show on that channel. Says I’m now bigger than Bobby Flay.

UM: Well, Chocolate Cake, that’s all we have time for.

CC: Really? I was going to tell you about a deal I worked with Trump and some mob guys over dinner at his Jersey club.

UM: Guess we’ll have stuff to talk about the next time. Thanks again.

CC: You treated me real nice, so I’ll be glad to help you out.

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It Came in Over the Bedroom Door

I personally prefer intentional change—change that occurs because you know what needs to be different, and you seek it.  You want it, and you make a place for that change in your life. One might give up an unhealthy habit, leave a job that is no longer appropriate, or find one’s voice and seek positive change out in the world. That kind of change is ideal, and it brings growth and empowerment and opens new doorways.

Then there’s the other kind of change. The kind that happens suddenly and you have to adapt quickly and go with it. It can bring about growth, too.

About six years ago in the wee morning hours of a Saturday, I awoke to a waterfall in our bedroom. It was a torrential storm, and water was cascading over the sliding glass doors next to our bed. I woke my husband, and we immediately ran to get buckets, mops, towels—whatever we could get our hands on to staunch the flow of water quickly covering the floor of our house.

The same thing was happening in the den—a waterfall over our sliding glass doors. Our kitchen was flooded, too. As we frantically worked to do what we could with the water covering the wood floors, I remember saying aloud, “Okay, Universe, we need help to make something good out of this.”

As the storm moved on to soak others elsewhere, the waterfalls cascading into our home soon trickled to a stop. I called a water remediation company, and they arrived without delay that Saturday morning to set up huge fans to begin the drying process.  Later that day we met with a renewal contractor about what was going to have to be done.

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The deluge in our home was caused by another contractor who was beginning the framing of a sunroom on the back of our house–cutting out the roof eaves and soffits and leaving Friday night without putting tarping on the roof. All the water flowing down our roof from the heavy storm that night poured right into our house.

We lived in a hotel for over three months while the walls, subfloors and wood floors, trim and cabinets were all replaced, and everything repainted. Our home offices were in the house, and, luckily, they were untouched by the flood. We drove to our home every day to work in our offices while the contractors did awesome work.

Shortly after the flood and the move to a hotel for the duration of the renewal of our home, my beloved father, who lived in the Louisville area, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My focus became my father most of the time, and I traveled to see him often. We had quality time—time that I will always treasure. I was amazed by my ability to accept what I could not control and embrace “it is what it is,” but still remain hopeful (resisting what I could not change would have been so much harder). I put one foot in front of the other and just took things step by step. I let go of what I could not control and worries over what would come tomorrow. Being focused in the moment was what made me able to keep moving and doing what I needed to do through it all—seeing my father, working with the insurance company and contractor and doing work. I was fully present in those times with my dad and experienced them as very precious.

The Universe made good on my request. The insurance company was very caring and compassionate and got checks to us right away. We stayed in a nice hotel where we didn’t have to worry about our room being cleaned or even preparing meals if I needed to travel to see Dad. The insurance company paid for almost everything.

While my father experienced discomfort with the chemo process, he didn’t experience pain, and that was such a gift to him and to all of us who loved him.

I look back on that time with an awareness of strength that I otherwise would not have known that I had. I also learned the power of now, of being in the present moment—not in the past or worried about the future—but NOW. That is where the power and the love is.

~0~

Things that happen in the blink of an eye and leave you all the wiser. Have one of those in your life? Nothing like putting it all down on “paper.” Click here for details on the latest UnderMain Essay Challenge.

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Jeb Bush honored by Nevi’im, The Hebrew Testament Prophets Society

In a ceremony in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, Nevi’im, The Hebrew Testament Prophets Society, honored Jeb Bush as the Hebrew Calendar Year 5776 Prophet of the Year. Making the presentation on behalf of Nevi’im, the Prophets Samuel, Jeremiah, and Micah acknowledged the single moment of prophetic brilliance of Bush’s losing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Samuel noted that Bush turned out to be “a loser, not an anointed one”, but that he appeared to be visited by heavenly hosts when he exclaimed during a primary debate about eventual winner, Donald Trump “…But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Micah chimed in that Bush’s dismal campaign certainly was in keeping with the prophet’s admonition to “walk humbly”. “Maybe too much humble walking!”, exclaimed Micah with a wink to the gathered mighty multitudes.

Jeremiah added that it is still not clear whether Bush’s prophecy will make him eligible for major or minor prophet status. An Assembly of the Angels of the Lord gathers every thousand years to determine the final placement of honorees in the pantheon of prophets.

At the ceremony, The Golden Calf Award for False Prophet of the Year was presented to David Plouffe, architect of Barack Obama’s election victories, who in June of 2016 made this prophecy in a widely-read tweet: “The race is not close. And it won’t be on November 8th. 350+ electoral votes for Clinton.”

In presenting the award, the Prophet Samuel, assisted by Satan’s Minions, said that the award was extraordinarily competitive this past year with so many deserving nominees, but that Plouffe’s prophecy stood out for its certainty and utter and complete error. Ordinarily the winner of The Golden Calf award is smitten by the hand of Samuel at the awards ceremony, but this year mercy was dispensed to Plouffe because “…even the Angels of the Lord bet wrong on this one”.

Plouffe, bound in chains, dressed in a sackcloth, and smeared with ashes, looked visibly relieved as he was led off the platform.

Nominations are open for the year 5777 awards. One nomination has been received to date for a dual award for the Prophet of the Year and the False Prophet of the Year, an unheard of celestial event. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have been nominated for the prophecy, “And the winner is…La La Land!”.

The awards ceremony ended with the sacrifice on the National Mall of two bulls, a sheep, and a goat.

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It Was Never a Dress

“How was the march?”

It was a simple text message from a friend who knew I had joined the Women’s March in downtown Lexington on Saturday, January 21. It caught me in the midst of a moment. 

So beautiful,” my response started. “So many interesting (because they were interested) and diverse people. The small minority of people that were there because they were angry gave way to the overwhelming majority of people that were hopeful and excited about the future.”

The signs were clever, I noted. “It was inspirational to see so many people empowered and free.  Every conversation I had was around the beauty of the experience, not the anger that was a small part of its impetus.”

After some reflection, I realized that my words to a friend are true.  They are truer than any words I could have purposely thought of.  True in a way that only stream-of-consciousness can be.  What at first was the effusion of an average, mid-thirties, white girl in Lexington proved to be the unadulterated language of the heart.

I’ve been concerned about our world for some time now.  From what I gather, most of us have been. There’s so much anger being spewed, so much hate cultivated and recycled and 24-hour cycled.  The fear in our culture has reached a boiling point and many of us don’t know what to do with it except to channel it into hate and anger.   

I am guilty of it. 

Here’s an example:

A friend of mine recently attended a sporting event with some children.  Her recounting of the event agitated me and I vomited hateful and nasty commentary.   She told the story of angry men, screaming at their crying children and likened the event to what she imagined a dogfight to be. 

I can’t remember my words exactly, but they went something like this: “this whole country is fu*!ed. Those idiots are just guaranteeing that their children turn out to be as backwards as they are.  In an effort to teach their children to be men, they’re scaring the human being out of them and turning them into monsters instead.”

I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d hope they never hear the words, “shut up and stop being a sissy.” I truly hope that I wouldn’t tell a young man to stop acting like a girl in a way, though not directly expressed, directly expresses that girls are less than him, weaker than him and somehow innately inferior. 

The January 21st march, juxtaposed with the account of what happened at that children’s sporting event, mere days apart from each other, paints one picture of the different attitudes we are cultivating in our homes and in our community.   

My favorite snapshot from the event is of a little girl in a Wonder Woman outfit. 

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It was most certainly not a costume as it was selected with intention and perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Evey Jarvis’ mother allowed me to photograph her. As she was spinning around and waving her hands, it occurred to me that Wonder Girls turn into Wonder Women and that today, in 2017, that is exactly