Columns

Dangerous creatures, Marie Kondo and books

Author Lisa Kleypas famously wrote, “A well-read woman is a dangerous creature.”

If that’s true then there were at least a dozen dangerous creatures at Lilac City Law on Friday night. No, we weren’t seeking legal representation. Our only crime was loving books maybe a little too much.

I blame Marie Kondo. My friend Sarah, fell under the organizing guru’s sway and launched an epic tidy-up, de-clutter spree.

I’m all for jettisoning clothes no longer worn, dated household decor and duplicates of kitchen items. As a newlywed, I was given a piece of advice that has served me well while rearing four sons in a cramped house. My friend told me to follow the “something in, something out” rule. Buy a new blouse? Get rid of an old one. Your kid gets a new toy? Donate one he no longer plays with.

While it’s kept our clutter at a minimum I draw the line at books.

There’s no way the “something in, something out” rule could ever apply to books. Why, choosing which volumes to jettison would be like choosing which kid you no longer love. It seems positively immoral.

It’s not even that I buy a lot of books. I don’t. I’m a devoted library groupie and every month I check out a new stack of books. But sometimes I fall in love with a novel and I simply must possess it, so I can read it again.

And as an author, I’m a huge believer in supporting other local authors. I love to line my bookshelves with titles by Inland Northwest authors. Every book purchase says, “Good job! I believe in you! Write another one!”

Of course, friends and family know I’m a bibliophile, and delight in feeding my addiction on my birthday, or Christmas, or sometimes just because they spot something they think I’d enjoy.

I don’t keep every book I buy or that’s given to me. If it’s by an author I didn’t enjoy or something I don’t want to read again, I stick it in the “donate” bag in my closet. But to be honest, few books make it to the bag.

Then Sarah started Kondo-sizing her library by posting photos of her books on Facebook and offering them free to a good home.

Such a great idea! It took the guesswork out of trying to figure out which friends would like which book, it was more personal than a thrift store drop, plus she got to experience the joy of re-homing a volume with someone she knows.

Then her friend Randi Johnson saw the posts and offered to expand the idea to a wider audience by hosting a book swap at her downtown law office and the Well-Read Women Book Swap was born.

The idea was simple. Bring in whatever books you’re willing to part with and maybe discover some you’d like to take home. Whatever books were left would be donated to the Friends of Spokane Public Library.

Friday night we gathered at Lilac City Law. Randi provided light snacks, wine and soda, and well-read women met, mingled and browsed the book table set up in a conference room.

A delightful variety of novels, nonfiction, children’s books, bestsellers and old-favorites spilled across the table.

Though I promised myself I wouldn’t bring anything home, I spotted “The Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz. It’s been on my to-read list since it came out. I had to have it.

Then I picked up “George and Lizzie” a novel by librarian/author Nancy Pearl, who just happens to be coming to Spokane to appear with local author Sharma Shields at the Bing Crosby Theater on March 13.

Finally, I saw “The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath.” I discovered Plath my freshman year of college and her dark, brooding, confessional poetry perfectly resonated with the dark, brooding persona I was trying on at the time.

Sarah, noting the Plath collection in my hand, asked, “Does that spark joy?”

One of Kondo’s most well-known tenets is “The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.”

I held the book and remembered my earnest 19-year-old self.

“Yes” I said. “Yes, it does.”

The inaugural “Well-Read Women Book Swap” turned out to be a fabulous event – one I hope dangerous creatures all over the city will replicate.

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Columns

Sunrise and the San Francisco Writers Conference

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The rooster’s hoarse crows were sounding desperate and none of us knew what to do.

There are a lot of things you expect to hear when packed into an airplane, but a rooster crowing isn’t one of them.

On Valentine’s Day I boarded a flight to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, a three-day event filled with classes, workshops, literary agents, publishers and hundreds of authors.

I was seated next to a young mother and her adorable 2 1/2-year-old son.

“Did you hear that?” she asked, as we settled in, awaiting takeoff. “It’s a rooster!”

Barely awake, I put down my book and listened. Sure enough a faint cock-a-doodle-do echoed throughout the cabin.

“It must be someone’s phone,” I replied.

But the crowing continued and grew more frantic as the minutes passed.

“I hope they’re not serving chicken sandwiches,” said a lady across the aisle. “That’s taking farm-to-table a little too far!”

We tittered but the crowing continued as the engines revved.

“It’s probably someone’s emotional support rooster,” announced the gentleman behind me.

Alas, we’ll never know, because once we fastened our seat belts and were airborne, the crowing ceased.

“If he’s in the cargo hold, his nuggets are frozen solid,” I said.

“Nuggets? Want nuggets!” the toddler next to me demanded.

Thankfully, he was satisfied with the Goldfish crackers his mother gave him.

It was my first visit to the Bay area, and I was delighted to leave Spokane’s frigid February and arrive in a city with temperatures in the balmy 50s.

Due to flight delays, I had to hit the ground running to make it to my first workshop. I checked into my hotel in the Embarcadero, directly across from the iconic Ferry building, and gathered my credentials.

“Hi Cindy, Happy Valentine’s Day,” said a stranger in the lobby.

“Er. Thank you,” I replied.

“Hey, Cindy! How are you today?” another gentleman asked, moments later.

These people are so friendly, I thought, but how do they know me?

Then I looked down at the credentials hanging from a lanyard around my neck, my first name written in super-sized font. Apparently, my fame had not preceded me.

I wasn’t the only one. I’d noticed the attendees had white nametags, and the volunteers had orange ones. In the elevator I asked a fellow sporting an orange nametag if he was helping at the conference.

“I’m presenting,” he said.

Turns out it was Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, the leading distributor of indie ebooks.

Moving on.

After several classes, I had just enough time to dash across the street to pick up a sandwich for dinner.

“Ma’am where’s your jacket? It’s freezing!” the concerned doorman asked, as I scouted nearby restaurants.

“It’s 53 degrees!” I replied. “When I left Spokane it was 17! This is tropical!”

He shook his head, huddled in his heavy overcoat.

“At least take an umbrella,” he said, offering one from the hotel’s stash.

The umbrella was necessary that night, but I never used one again – not even during a sunrise photography walk, sponsored by the Writer’s Workshop.

That’s right. I may be notoriously anti-morning, but I saw the sun rise from a pier near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to explore the area with a professional photographer as a guide.

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But the coffee didn’t prevent my next elevator faux pas.

“Are you here for the writer’s conference?” I asked a fellow, as we descended to the meeting rooms.

“No, I’m here for a conference on thinking,” he replied.

“Writers think, too,” I said. And then I silently vowed to stop speaking to strangers on elevators.

Speaking of mornings, I took comfort in the words of keynote speaker Jane Friedman. “With a little self-awareness you can compete with morning people,” she said.

I knew she was one of my tribe even before that because she shared a photo of a kitty she frequently cat-sits. I quickly got out my phone and shared a photo of Thor with my tablemate, which prompted the other writers at the table to share pictures of their own cats.

It must be hard to be taken seriously as an author if you don’t have a cat.

Sunday morning I watched the sun rise over the bay and listened to the clang of the cable car as it rounded the corner in front of the hotel. I drank in the view of palm trees and the waterfront. It was time to fly home to the land of snow and ice.

I was tired and I missed my family, but Tony Bennett and I now have something in common. I. too, left my heart in San Francisco.

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Columns

Lonely tabby’s love weighs heavy

Sometimes love can feel oppressive, even suffocating, especially when it weighs 14 pounds and is sitting on your chest.

I’m speaking of Thor, our tabby cat, and his deep devotion to me. He’s always been a mama’s boy, but when our tuxedo cat, Milo, died in November, Thor’s adoration intensified.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not even his first love. Thor’s heart actually belongs to whatever comes out of the refrigerator, pantry or kitchen cupboards. He has a food fixation, and since I’m the primary provider of meals, his passions are twofold.

He doggedly follows me throughout the house, like I’m littering cat treats in my wake. It’s sweet, but it’s also dangerous. I’ve tripped over him many times, and I’ve often trodden on his tail.

Love hurts, but occasionally it’s just annoying.

For example, I love to start my morning by curling up in bed with a hot cup of coffee and the newspaper. Thor likes to start his morning by curling up under my chin for a serious round of petting and affirmation. Coffee and a newspaper are no deterrent to a feline in purr-suit of affection. After he’s had enough chin-scratches, he moseys down to my feet and naps.

He’s already had breakfast because our son, Zach, is the first one up in the morning, and the first one awake has to feed Thor. Otherwise, the rest of us won’t be allowed to sleep.

Sometimes the mix of a full tummy and cuddles zonks him out while he’s still on my chest. Thor is a heavy sleeper. Literally. It’s very hard to dislodge 14 pounds of purr.

When I manage to get up and start my day, he follows me to the bathroom to supervise my ablutions. He used to drink from the bathroom sink, but once he didn’t dodge quickly enough when I was brushing my teeth and we both discovered Thor is not a fan of mint toothpaste on his whiskers.

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If I’m working from home, he follows me downstairs to my desk. We bypass his food dish on the way, and Thor sees his food dish is empty. Since it’s been at least two hours since breakfast, Thor assumes he’s starving and launches into a piteous round of meows and complaints, which I ignore.

He sidles up next to my desk chair and nudges me till I pet him, just to show there are no hard feelings. Then he heads over to a nearby recliner to resume napping.

I swear he sleeps with one eye open because any movement from me convinces Thor I’m on my way to give him lunch.

I think he misses Milo most after lunch. Most afternoons following their noon meal, Milo would go cat-crazy and chase Thor up and down the stairs and all over the house.

Now and then Thor does the runabout on his own, but it’s not the same if you’re not in fear of a pouncing from your furry friend.

When I prepare dinner, Thor supervises, and his supervisory skills have gotten overbearing. He’s a micromanager when it comes to food prep, especially if there’s meat involved. He bats his paws at the cutting board and loudly demands a portion of whatever I’m cooking. If nothing I’m preparing is suitable for cats, I’ll give him a couple of treats.

He sits next to my chair during dinner. Just in case I feel like slipping him a morsel.

Since he’s so food-motivated, I’ve taught him to sit up, to beg, and occasionally he’ll even roll over for a treat. Playing dead? Well, he does that for hours at a time, with no treat needed.

I usually read for awhile before bedtime, and Thor drapes himself over me, lest I get cold. Or in case I decide to get up for a snack.

When Derek joins me, Thor will often try to suffocate him with affection, too, but we all know it’s just a ploy to get Derek to let him sleep with us.

Derek commands him to leave. Thor ignores him. Ignoring is prominent in his skill set. This irks my husband to no end, because when I get up to shut our bedroom door, I say, “Night, Night, Thor,” and Thor immediately jumps down and scoots out the door. This cat knows which side of his tuna is buttered.

His steadfast, fixated devotion to me may stem in part from loneliness. Thor has never been an only-cat. He came from a litter of four, and when we adopted him, he came home to Milo.

Perhaps it’s time to adopt a furry friend for our tubby tabby. I’m more than willing to share the spotlight of Thor’s saucer eyes.

Stay tuned.

Columns

Fans Keep on Lovin’ REO Speedwagon

He stood like a lonely Statue of Liberty, holding his lighter aloft, its flame flickering in the darkness. An actual cigarette lighter, not a pale imitation cellphone flashlight.

You should have seen by the look in my eyes, baby

There was something missin’

He swayed. Silent. Stoic.

You should have known by the tone in my voice, maybe

But you didn’t listen

The Thursday night crowd at Northern Quest Resort and Casino had already come unglued as REO Speedwagon unleashed “In Your Letter “ and “Keep Pushin’,” but something tells me the fan with the lighter had been waiting for “Keep on Loving You.”

Like any iconic rock band, REO Speedwagon knew fans had come to hear their hits and to bask in the memories that their music brings. And Lighter Guy, lost in his own world, was as my kids say, feeling “all the feels.”

And I’m gonna keep on lovin’ you

’Cause it’s the only thing I want to do

I don’t want to sleep, I just want to keep on lovin’ you

By the time the chorus rolled around, most of the sold-out crowd, including Derek and I, stood with Lighter Guy, belting out the lyrics.

When my husband saw REO Speedwagon was coming to Northern Quest, he quickly scooped up tickets. After all, the band was at its zenith when Derek graduated from high school in 1981. There’s nothing like a blast of music from the past to make you feel young again.

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With evangelistic zeal, lead singer Kevin Cronin whipped the middle-aged crowd into a frenzy – especially the super fan across the aisle from us. She whooped. She hollered. She pogo-jumped up and down and her air guitar skills were impressive.

“Rock ’n’ roll will keep you young forever!” Cronin hollered.

“Or else it kills you,” Derek said, shouting in my ear.

That was the last thing I actually heard him say for quite a while. It was the first time I’d wished for earplugs at a concert since Def Leppard played the Spokane Arena in 2017. Everything sounded like I was underwater no matter how many times I tried to pop my ears.

About four songs into the evening, things began to sound clearer.

“I think my ears are adjusting,” I said.

“What?” Derek replied. “I can’t hear you. They are really loud!”

Despite the decibel level, the band sounded great, but it was the crowd that truly made the show. In addition to Lighter Guy and Air Guitar Lady, Baseball Cap Gal, in front of us, was a hoot to watch.

With her curly hair pulled through the back of her ball cap, she looked to be having the time of her life. She rocked. She bounced. She shook her gray-streaked ponytail like the teenager she used to be. And she knew the lyrics to every single song, even “Tough Guys.”

We didn’t mind her exuberance a bit, as she was a tad on the short side.

“Oh, hey, I didn’t realize she was standing up,” said Derek.

However, one fan’s enthusiasm kept getting the better of her. She doggedly danced down the aisle to the front of the stage, only to be repeatedly danced back by a long-suffering, very patient member of the security team.

At one point she found Air Guitar Lady and they linked arms, attempting to lead her to worship at the altar of their rock gods.

A woman behind us leaned forward.

“That’s not going to end well,” she said.

Sure enough, moments later, Air Guitar Lady was back in her row, while Mosh Pit Hopeful was escorted to the nether regions.

You have to admire a band that inspires that kind of devotion decades after their last chart-topping hit.

REO Speedwagon still delivers a fantastic, high-energy show. “Ride the Storm Out” shook the room, and the crowd eagerly offered vocal assistance on “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Take it on the Run.”

Keep in mind these guys aren’t exactly teenagers. Kevin Cronin is 67, bassist Bruce Hall is 65, and founding member, keyboardist Neal Doughty is 72, yet they blazed through their entire set list, plus encores, without a break.

Who knows? Maybe rock ’n’ roll really does keep you young forever.

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Columns

Gifts That Keep on Giving

The tree’s been taken down, the heavenly host wrapped in bubble wrap. Winterberry dishes are back in their boxes, and the last Christmas cookie crumb has been devoured. But I still have lots of holiday joy to anticipate.

That’s because on Christmas morning, my husband gave me some gifts that keep on giving – he gave me gift cards to a few of my favorite places.

I can already hear some of you groaning.

“Gift cards are for those too lazy to shop!”

“Gift cards are so impersonal.”

“Who wants to open a piece of plastic on Christmas morning?”

The answer to that is ME!

For many couples gift-giving can be incredibly stressful. High expectations meet limited resources. Subtle clues misread. Misunderstandings run rampant.

Example: Just because I needed a set of kitchen scissors, did not mean I wanted to find them under the tree on Christmas morning.

Some couples abandon gifts all together and focus on their children, or donate cash they would have spent to local charities.

That’s all well and good, but Derek and I enjoy giving presents to each other. It’s fun to watch your loved one’s eyes light up when they open a gift that delights them.

For example, this year Derek found a leg lamp under the tree – a replica of the one in our favorite holiday film “A Christmas Story.”

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Of course, this led to a discussion about whether this was a seasonal display item, or something that should shine from our living room window all year long.

Like I said, gift-giving can be stressful.

Moving on.

Years ago, we figured out that taking the time to write a list of things we’d enjoy receiving eliminates disappointment, while still keeping surprises alive. You see, we don’t buy each other everything on the lists, so the receiver still doesn’t know what will end up under the tree.

And there’s always off-list purchases like the leg lamp.

When our nest finally empties, things may change. Our sons might not gather around the tree on Christmas morning. There might be grandchildren we’d rather dote on or trips we’d like to take. Traditions have to match whatever stage of life you’re in.

Which brings me back to gift cards.

Derek knows I have a hard time spending money on myself. Nine times out of 10, I’ll see something I like or need and talk myself out of buying it. It used to drive him crazy that I’d dither over buying a new pair of jeans.

“Just buy the jeans!” he’d say.

But I’d demur.

“I’m sure I can find them on sale, somewhere else.”

Then he discovered when he gives me gift cards, I actually enjoy using them.

They gave me permission for small luxuries I normally avoid – like picking up coffee at a drive-thru.

And no, giving cash is not the same thing at all.

The best gifts show how well the giver knows the recipient. Derek understands if he gave me cash, I’d spend it on someone else or give it away. He also knows my favorite shops. He’d never give me a Cabela’s gift card, and I’d never buy him one from Victoria’s Secret (though he really seems to enjoy my purchases from that particular store).

Equally important, we both are happy that our hard-earned dollars stay local instead of being sucked into the endless emptiness of the Internet.

Surprisingly, a survey conducted by Consumer Reports determined that more than 25 percent of all gift cards given are never used.

That’s not the case in our house.

The last scrap of crumpled wrapping paper may have hit the recycling bin, but I’ve got a couple of envelopes set aside with my name on them. At some point, probably next month, I’ll pick up a coffee, drive to a spa for a relaxing massage, and then indulge in some guilt-free shopping.

I’m all about the anticipation, and gift cards can make the magic of Christmas last long after the tinsel – and the leg lamp – have been packed away.

Columns

A trip to the past with the kids

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They didn’t exactly press their noses against the glass, and they didn’t squeal like the tiny girl who danced in front of them when she spotted the sugar plum fairies, but our two younger sons pronounced the animatronic Christmas displays at the Davenport Grand Hotel “pretty cool.”

When the Downtown Spokane Partnership pulled together volunteers to restore some of the displays that once adorned the windows of The Crescent department store, I knew I wanted to see them again. Taking Sam, 19, and Zach, 24, with me was just a bonus.

It’s not often you get to revisit your childhood with your kids. To my delight, the displays haven’t lost any of their magic. My favorite elf roasting a marshmallow at the North Pole was back, as were the busy beaver family chopping wood.

While I fondly remember The Crescent Christmas windows of my childhood, I also have more recent Crescent memories.

I worked at the downtown department store and later the NorthTown store from 1986-89. I started as a waitress in the Grill restaurant downtown. Located on the sixth floor, adjacent to the larger tea room, the restaurant was once called the Men’s Grill. Its wood-paneled walls and black leather chairs harkened back to an era when business was conducted over gin martinis at noon, and the only women present were serving the drinks.

Five days a week, I’d park at what was then the Coliseum (for free!) and hop on a shuttle that dropped me off at The Crescent’s front doors. I think it cost me 30 cents each way.

My uniform was a form-fitting, zip-up black dress that hit several inches above the knee, topped by a short white apron. Kind of like a French maid outfit, but classier.

Derek and I were engaged at the time, and he still fondly recalls that uniform.

Though the men-only designation was dropped years before I worked there, the Grill was still a regular luncheon spot for city movers and shakers. In fact, the only time I was stiffed out of tips while working there was when I waited on the mayor and a table of city employees. That’s no way to get re-elected, folks.

My “regulars” included a trio of sharply-dressed older gentlemen, whose weekly liquid lunches were legendary.

I was 20, and had never even tasted a cocktail, but now I wonder how much work they got done later, after a lunch of two double martinis a piece – usually sparsely accompanied by bowls of chicken and rice soup, and plate of Lavosh (a type of flatbread or cracker).

They were kind men and great tippers. When they learned that after my wedding, I’d be transferring to retail sales and working at NorthTown, they were sad. They each left a $20 tip and notes wishing me well.

Speaking of my wedding, my employee discount came in handy. I purchased a designer gown on clearance and found the perfect veil, all for about $200.

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Years ago, I sold the dress when it became apparent that I wouldn’t have any daughters to hand it down to. But I kept the veil. Who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll have a daughter-in-law who wants to wear it.

Around the time I transferred to NorthTown, The Crescent became Frederick & Nelson. I ended up in the shoe department with a couple of old-timers who’d worked downtown in The Crescent’s heyday. I loved hearing their stories, and I put what they taught me about customer service into practice.

I must have learned well, because my commission that first year paid for Derek and me to go to Disneyland.

The final week of my department store career came the week before Christmas. Our first child was due New Year’s Eve. I could no longer see my own feet, let alone help elderly ladies try on shoes.

Almost 30 years later, standing outside the Davenport Grand with my sons, the past came to life again, along with the glittering Crescent Christmas window displays.

Magic and memories.

“Pretty cool,” indeed.

Columns

Sizzling Sisters Sausage Sunday (Go Pig or Go Home)

If you don’t want to know how the sausage gets made, you should stop reading now. Seriously. Recently my sisters-in-law and I had our annual Sizzling Sisters Sausage Sunday.

Forty pounds of pork butt, 6 pounds of ground beef, 5 pounds of pork fat, 6 pounds of potatoes, 6 pounds of onion, assorted spices, a secret ingredient, a fair amount of wine (for us, not the sausage) and many inappropriate jokes later, we have sausage. Lots and lots of sausage.

Each year my sister-in-law Camille Jordalen and her Norwegian husband, Kjell, host our family Christmas Eve gathering, which I call “The Festival of Strange Norwegian Meat.”

While steamed Brussels sprouts, boiled potatoes and my favorite, mashed rutabaga, make an appearance, the real star of the annual feast is meat – specifically pork with a side of lamb.

I’ve never been able to embrace the salty tang of pinnekjøtt (cured lamb ribs) but I look forward to ribbe (pork ribs with a thick layer of fat), Swedish meatballs, Swedish potato sausage and two Scandinavian sausages – medisterpølse and medisterkaker.

I’m not exactly sure how the Swedes got involved in our Norwegian meal, but I suspect my mother-in-law and her Swedish heritage had something to do with it.

For several years we bought the potato sausage from Egger’s, but then my sister-in-law, Susie Hval, got a meat grinder. She wanted to try her hand at making homemade bratwurst, and once she conquered that, she was ready for a new challenge.

“Why don’t we make our own medisterpolse and potato sausage?” she asked.

And thus a tradition was born.

Camille makes the medisterkaker on her own because that sausage is formed into patties and fried. The other two are link sausages, which is where the teamwork, fun, and double entendres come in. We’ve given birth to 11 sons between the three of us. Trust me when I say there isn’t a sausage joke we haven’t made or heard. This is also probably why our spouses vacate the house when Sizzling Sisters Sausage Sunday commences.

I suspect watching their wives grind 40 pounds of pork butt and squeeze it into slippery sausage casing makes them a bit squeamish. By the way, those casings are made from pig intestines. Go pig or go home, that’s what we always say.

With our aprons on and hair pulled back in messy buns, we get down to business Pioneer Woman style.

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Pork and pork fat is sliced and diced and fed into the grinder. Onions and potatoes are added for the potato sausage.

“This always reminds me of the Play-Doh barber shop,” Susie said.

She’s right. The meat coming out of the grinder looks just like the hair coming out of the figures’ heads in the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop of our childhoods.

After two rounds of grinding, we’re ready to squeeze the meat into the casings. The casing is slid on to an attachment on the grinder. It’s a delicate operation because if the sister who is pushing the meat through pushes too fast, sausages can rupture.

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Once we have a long rope, we’re ready make links. This involves a process I call “swinging the sausage” which is Susie’s specialty. Much like jumping rope when we were kids, she swings the sausage till the ends are tight and ready to tie.

Tying the slippery ends is challenging, especially when your hands are coated with pig fat, but we manage to get it done. Actually, Susie manages to get it done. Camille tried tying, but struggled, and I’m a disaster at balloon-tying, so I don’t even attempt it.

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For the potato sausage, the casings are pricked with little holes, so they don’t explode upon cooking. This is my job.

While we work we catch up on life and family – that is when we aren’t talking to ourselves. We’ve discovered that each of us tends to keep a running commentary when we’re concentrating, much like we’re the hosts of our own cooking shows. This works great when working alone, but it does get a bit confusing when cooking with others.

Seven hours flew by and at the end of the day we had freezer bags full of sausage, ready to be browned and served on Christmas Eve.

We sampled the sausage and agreed that each year it tastes better. And that secret ingredient? It really isn’t much of a secret – it’s love with a hefty dash of laughter.

Columns

Missing Milo

He joined our family on a beautiful spring evening. Nine years later, he left us on a cold November morning.

None of us have gotten used to the silence his absence left behind.

Milo James, a svelte tuxedo cat, was our family’s first pet – unless you count sea monkeys and goldfish.

We’d intended to adopt an older female cat. Preferably a white, fluffy, princess-y type feline, because I’d grown tired of being the only girl in our house.

But a hyperactive ball of dusty gray fluff caught my eye at the pet adoption event. He was literally bouncing off the walls.

“My goodness!” I said. “This little guy needs Ritalin.”

He jumped. He hopped. He spun in circles. In short, he was just like the rest of the boys in my house.

“No,” Derek said. “Not that one.”

I dutifully looked at the other cats, but I couldn’t help wondering if all Milo’s frantic activity was just a desperate plea for attention.

“I want to hold him,” I said.

“Not a good idea,” Derek replied.

But a store employee unlocked Milo’s cage. I picked him up, fully expecting him to squirm, or scratch, or climb up my hair, but instead he laid his head on my shoulder and sighed.

“Let’s go pick out a bed for our new cat,” Derek told the boys.

That playful kitten grew into a sleek, bossy cat who quickly took charge of the household. He was a creature of order and habit. He expected breakfast to be on time, at the same time every morning, and the ruckus he raised if it wasn’t, was impossible to sleep through.

When it was bedtime, all I had to say was, “Night night, Milo,” and he ran downstairs to the boy’s room he’d chosen as his own.

He never slept in that fancy cat bed. Not once. Why would he when the other beds in the house were bigger and contained warm humans to snuggle with?

Milo appointed himself the household greeter. His was the first face each of us saw when we returned from work or school.

Milo James (2)

But he did have some less charming habits.

He was a committed and dedicated swiper, and he focused his attention on my desk. Anything left unsecured was fair game. Most mornings I come down to my desk and find my notebooks, calendar, pens, post-it notes and mouse on the floor.

Sam would catch him in the act and yell, “Milo! Leave Mom’s desk alone!”

Milo would gaze at him, unblinking, and proceed to knock everything to the floor.

He was also a prodigious and sloppy sneezer. Few things are more disgusting than stepping on a spot of cat snot in your bare feet first thing in the morning.

For someone with sneezing issues, he was mightily offended if anyone in his vicinity did the same. A sneeze from one of us prompted a loud yowling lecture, followed by an annoyed exit.

He didn’t like change of any kind. Re-arranging the furniture elicited anxious mutterings, so imagine his reaction seven years ago when we brought home a tiny tabby kitten named Thor.

Milo sulked for days. He hid under our bed and refused to come out, until hunger finally made slink downstairs.

Thor became his devoted, annoying acolyte, and Milo eventually tolerated his presence.

Two weeks ago Milo got sick. Really sick. I rushed him to the vet and was told his bladder was completely blocked. Urinary problems are common in boy cats who only eat dry food, and Milo turned up his nose at wet food or treats. He was a stubborn creature of habit.

His illness resulted in a four-night stay at the Pet Emergency Hospital. He seemed to rally, and we brought him home on a Monday evening.

He made his rounds. Cuddled with each of us, and spent the night on the couch curled up with Thor. But in the morning he was worse. Much worse. He hid under Zach’s bed or in his laundry basket. He refused to eat.

A miserable week passed, with daily trips to the vet. It was too much for Milo, who hated any kind of disruption to his schedule.

He grew silent. We grew sad.

And one evening the four of us made the choice to let him go. It was an agonizing decision, but Milo let us know he was done. He was sick. He was tired. He wanted to go.

So, on a Friday morning we gathered around him in the vet’s office. We held him. Kissed him. Told him how much we loved him.

He laid his head in my hand as the vet gave him the first injection. My face was the last thing he saw and the last thing he heard was my voice telling him what a good boy he was.

Turns out Milo didn’t have nine lives. He only had one. And we are forever grateful that he spent it with us.

Columns

A soldier’s letters home

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Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m now in the barracks and have just a short time to write before the lights go off. I wanted to ask you to send my clarinet. They are forming a band in the company and I want to join it. The commander is very strong for anything musical. He said if we send for our instruments, the army would take care of them for us. They will ship them any place we go….

Please write soon.

Your “Private” Son,

Love Jack xxx

The letters came from Fort Devens, Massachusetts, from Camp Pontchartrain, Louisiana, from Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Philippines – approximately 150 in all.

Jack Rogers enlisted in the Army in 1943, at age 19. He was assigned to the amphibious engineers unit and spent three years on active duty, two of them in the South Pacific.

When he returned from the military, he embarked on a lifelong career as an artist, illustrator and teacher. I met him many years ago when he taught art at my sons’ elementary school.

A founding member of the Spokane Watercolor Society, Jack started the art department at Spokane Falls Community College in 1963 and taught there for 26 years. He never actually retired. In fact, he was still painting and teaching the last week of his life.

He was an amazing, inspiring man, and I wrote several articles about him for this newspaper. I also included Jack and Fran Rogers’ story in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

Recently, I went to Fran’s 95th birthday party. As I was leaving, their daughter Nancy asked if I’d like to read some of the letters Jack wrote home while serving during World War ll.

I eagerly pored over them when Nancy dropped them off. I thought I knew Jack and World War ll history pretty well, but these letters offered a new glimpse of military life during the war and they also reveal Jack’s wit and talent for telling a tale. Many of the envelopes are illustrated with his whimsical sketches and drawings.

Boy Mom, you ought to see me sew my insignias on. I can almost thread the needle every time. And as for my laundry, well they give you plenty of G.I. soap. We have plenty of water the rest is just plain elbow grease….

Please write real often.

Love Your Private Son Jack

Even the more serious anecdotes feature Jack’s flair.

Last Thursday Red was on guard. He felt a little sick, so he sat down and went to sleep and the O.D. caught him. Well, if you don’t know it that is a very serious offense in the Army. Friday they had a court marshell (sic) but no one would testify that he was actually asleep, so they charged him with sitting down while on duty.

Lots of Love, Your son Jack, good nite Mom xxx

He often couldn’t tell them exactly where he was or what his training entailed.

“You know, military secrets,” he wrote.

But in one letter he enclosed a small card emblazoned “Ancient Order of the Deep” that certified he’d crossed the equator aboard the S.S. Extavia on May 10, 1944.

Last night we slept on deck as it was too stuffy below. Although the steel deck didn’t have much spring, it was a lot cooler.

He asked his mom to send him things like white handkerchiefs, jockey shorts and coat hangers. She dutifully noted his requests on the backs of the envelopes.

In a 1944 letter from New Guinea, Jack already sounds like an old soldier instead of a young recruit.

Company had a rifle and personal inspection. It was the first we have had since leaving the States. How I remember the days when you shined your boots ’til you could shave in them, stood in ranks thinking of all the things that could hold up that weekend pass. Did you remember to tuck your handkerchief all the way in the pocket? Could you have missed a button, or could some dust have gotten on your rifle?

But a letter from Dutch East Indies shows that he and his buddies were still kids at heart.

They got a bulldozer and fixed up a softball field. And we have a league started in the company, playing in the evenings and Sundays. It sure roused a lot of company spirit.

It reminded me of what he’d said in an interview.

“Our whole company was made up of kids – kids dressed up as soldiers,” he’d said.

On Dec. 23, 1944, Jack wrote of Christmas plans.

Cornie is now fixing up a little java for us and we broke down and opened one of our fruit cakes. We were talking tonight that we would get us a small palm and decorate it, but I’ll be darned if I know what we’d use for decorations.

Jack’s unit was the first one back into Manila, Philippines, after Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous landing, and they served as part of the occupational forces in Japan. They were torpedoed by subs and shot at by kamikazes.

The letters from home served as their lifeline – their connection to the world they’d left behind and the world they wanted to come back to.

Good nite Mom and don’t worry about anything on this end. Write soon. Your loving son, Jack.

Columns

Some like it hot… especially me

They say you don’t appreciate what you have until you no longer have it.

Take electricity for example. In August we lost power for several hours. It didn’t take long for my family to deeply appreciate the magic that happens when you flip a switch and the lights come on.

Apparently, the Universe deemed we needed another lesson in gratitude.

Ten years ago, my husband and his father replaced our aging water heater with a fancy tankless model. Like all Hval projects it was fraught with unforeseen complications. Namely, they couldn’t get the water shut off. But also like all Hval projects, it was worth the wait.

At the time, we had six people living at home, including four active boys. Showering had turned into a competitive sport. No one wanted to be the last one to shower because that’s when the hot water usually ran out. And God help the Mom who threw a load of laundry in while boys were bathing.

After our new tankless system was installed, Derek ran his hand over the compact, gleaming wall-mounted beauty.

“We’ll never run out of hot water, again!” he said.

For a long time, he was right. But a few years ago, the heater began making some ominous noises. We ignored them.

This summer the rattle turned to a roar that echoed all the way outdoors to the Great Gazebo where I sunned myself.

And then the dripping started.

Last month, Derek and I came home after an evening out, and Zach said, “Did you know water is coming out of the hot water heater?”

We did not know this.

After assessing the situation, Derek put a bucket under it.

Within days the trickle became a small but steady stream and the bucket had to be emptied with increasing frequency. We took to turning the water heater off at night.

“I think it’s the heat exchanger,” said Derek.

Then he did something unheard of in the Hval household: He called for professional help.

A plumber visited and confirmed Derek’s suspicion, and recommended replacing the entire unit. The estimated cost was the equivalent of sending one of us to Hawaii while the other stayed home and ate macaroni and cheese for a week.

“I’ll just replace the heat exchanger and I’ll do it myself,” Derek announced.

He watched a YouTube video about the process and ordered the part online.

“It’ll be here in less than a week,” he said.

Of course, that was the day the water heater quit all together.

Theoretically, one can live without hot water. You can wash your hands and your clothes in cold and our dishwasher has its own heating coils. What you cannot do is shower in cold water. At least I can’t.

The four of us scrambled to find bathing options while we waited for the part to arrive. We have a gym membership, so Derek and Sam took hot showers there. I could have done that, too, but I like more privacy when I get ready for my day. Thankfully, I housesit for snowbirds during the fall and winter, and hot showers and my office away from home were just a short drive away.

Which left poor Zachary (who’d let his gym membership lapse) to learn the military discipline of taking an icy shower.

“The key is to keep your feet out of the way of the water,” he informed us.

A chilly week passed before the part arrived. It had some complicated wiring, but Derek easily figured it out and hooked it up in record time.

He switched it on and waited. No rattle. No roar. And unfortunately no hot water.

“I think the dripping water fried the fan,” he said. “I’ll order a new one. It’ll be here in a couple days.”

We are a stoic lot, but the news was hard to take. Our combined groans sounded almost as loud as the defunct water heater used to.

On the appointed day, the fan arrived while we were all at work. Derek hurried home to install it. The rest of us watched our phones, anxiously awaiting word.

Within minutes a text arrived. “We have HOT WATER!”

Such beautiful words!

Zachary got the first shower. He’d earned it.

As for me, when it was my turn to luxuriate under the warm water’s soothing spray, I counted my blessings. Loudly. Just in case the Universe thinks I need any more reminders.