Archive for May, 2012

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Political Monday: Dealing with Cuts in Defense

May 28, 2012

As the United States looks to reduce its overall budget deficit, it is natural for conservatives and liberals to push for cuts in areas outside their own interests. Generally speaking, for conservatives, it’s social programs.  For liberals, it’s defense spending.  Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about various areas of cuts and try to step beyond the “politics as usual” and look for what is really going on.  To that end, a look at a small sliver of proposed defense spending cuts sheds some light on the subject.

Andrea Shalal-Esa of Reuters reported on the effects of proposed cuts at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, Lima Tank Plant, in Lima Ohio[i], on the local Lima economy.  It is well worth your time to read her article as it takes spending cuts down to a personal level.  While Andrea’s article is politically neutral, I think stories like this will be the fodder for the current political season.  Unfortunately, both political camps will miss the point of her story; budget cuts have real impact on individuals.

Upon reflection though, I think the real culprit in this situation is the company running the Lima facility – General Dynamics.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am very fond of General Dynamics.  I served in the US Navy’s Submarine Service and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division plays a large role in construction of safe and capable submarines.  That is not to blame them for budget cuts but more in how they react to budget cuts.  We must remember, our military is their customer.  By extension, that makes our government and ultimately, “We The People” their customers.

In business, management has the responsibility to return to investors the maximum amount of profit.  In the Lima case, they entered into a contract to run the facility for the government and produce tanks.  With the winding down of two wars, we have a surplus of tanks.  It is silly to spend over $6 million per tank on new ones, regardless of its impact on the Lima community.  In business, you must make the products the customer needs, not the product you want them to buy.  The question is not what can we do to keep the military buying unneeded tanks but what can we do to manufacture equipment at the facility until the military needs more tanks.  Companies supplying our military have for far too long depended on increased sales to maintain their profitability.  It is time that changes.

General Dynamics knows this.  Their latest acquisition of IPWireless Inc. shows they understand the need to diversify.  So how do we help them keep the Lima plant operational in the near-term?  This is the question our politicians need to answer; this is where their rhetoric fails.  The plant needs to remain operational in regards to manufacturing but idol in regards to building tanks.

The point is, it is not a political question as much as it is a one of practicality.  We need the ability to manufacture tanks but we cannot afford to pay for tanks just to keep the plant working.  Just off the top of my head, one obvious task the plant can take on is refitting and refurbishing tanks for overhaul.  As the number return from our combat zones, they will overwhelm the depot-level repair facilities.  Another task might be the recycling of tanks that reach the end of their planned life cycle.  It is up to General Dynamics to find useful work to keep their employees working, not the federal government.  Of course, it is in the government’s best interest to assist them in finding such tasking.

Another point to keep in mind when you hear a politician blast the opposing party for their lack of leadership on this particular issue, neither party shows any leadership.  The conservatives simply want to keep buying new weapons, the budget be damned, and the liberals want to slash production without thinking about the long-term effect on our national security.  Of course, I generalize but you get the point.

Today is Memorial Day.  Perhaps it is fitting to take on this subject on a day we honor the brave men and women that have kept our nation safe since before we were even an independent country.  We owe it to them, and the current men and women keeping us safe to spend each penny wisely.  We must give them the equipment they need.  We need to be frugal so we can afford to do just that.  Wasteful spending is just as unpatriotic as not spending at all.  We need companies like General Dynamics to do their part and keep the Lima plant open and working so, they can respond quickly when the demand for tanks returns.  We need their creativity to find ways to keep it operational.  This will make General Dynamics a true partner to our freedom and not just the beneficiary of unbridled defense spending.

 

 


[i] Shalal-Esa, Andrea. “U.S. Defense Cuts Hit Home at Ohio Tank Plant.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 24 May 2012. Web. 28 May 2012.
<http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/24/us-usa-defense-ohio-idUSBRE84N1DW20120524>.

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Poetry Sunday: Memorial Day

May 27, 2012

I’ve written about Memorial Day before but it is a subject dear to my heart having learned while I served in the military just what sacrifice truly means.  Oddly, this important day’s history is uncertain and it did not become a national day of remembrance until 1966.  While other countries certainly honor their men and women that die in combat, we in the United States have a civic and moral duty to recognize the sacrifice that made us who we are.

No one knows just how Memorial Day started.  There are many stories and over a dozen localities lay claim to being its birthplace.  Here is what we do know:  Towards the end of the US Civil War, around 1864, organized women’s groups in the South (the Confederate side) began decorating the graves of soldiers killed in the war.  Soon, the practice migrated north (the Union side) and the US Army officially recognized the practice in 1867 with General John Logan’s General Order # 11[i].

New York was the first state to officially recognize a Memorial Day with virtually every other state following suit, but Memorial Day did not become a federally recognized holiday until 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation into law.  Sadly, it took the federal government 99 years to get with the program.  If it took that long to establish something like honoring our war dead, is it any wonder why they can’t get anything done on difficult issues?

Perhaps the worst change to Memorial Day happened in 1968.  The federal government saw fit to pass the Uniform Monday Holiday Act[ii](it did not take effect until 1971).  The act changed the day to the last Monday in May, giving us the three-day weekend.  As nice

Gen John Logan

as a three-day weekend is, it makes the day more about romping on the beach rather than honoring our lost heroes.  I guess in the United States we have to invent a reason to take a holiday, I prefer the way the United Kingdom handles it by declaring a “bank holiday” and everyone just takes the day off.  That way, we keep our special days special and get a break from work too.

Ok, so now you know just a bit about the history of the day.  It is the history that inspired me to write my tribute poem to Memorial Day and the men and women it honors.  Regardless of what you do tomorrow, take a few moments and give thanks to your fellow citizens that gave everything for you to have such a day.

Memorial Day

Be it Southern widow’s pride
or the stroke of Logan’s pen –
the truth of it matters naught
the deeds – the fight – the daring
all sacrifice remembered

Lincoln’s “last full measure” paid
they are “the better angels”
no justice paid them with words
The price always understood.
Remember what this day’s for.

The brave, sacred few who gave,
their very bones are our brick –
their precious blood our mortar,
binding this nation as one.
They gave to us and gave all.

With bowed head I pray for them
to forever gently rest
and know we hold to the gift.
This land’s free by lives spent so
forget that not, not this day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC

General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of

 

JOHN A. LOGAN,
Commander-in-Chief

N.P. CHIPMAN,
Adjutant General

Official:
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

 

[ii] “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 May 2012. Web. 27 May 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniform_Monday_Holiday_Act>.

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Saturday’s Feast: Grilled Memorial Day Burgers

May 26, 2012

OK, I grant you most every guy on the planet thinks he knows how to grill a burger.  The problem is they think they know.  In reality, they know how to produce burgers closer to the charcoal briquette than a tasty burger worthy of a Memorial Day celebration.  If not a briquette, then they hand you a burger that looks good until you bite into it and discover it’s really steak tartare.  That might work for seared tuna, but in a burger, it leaves much to be desired.

Cooking ground beef on a grill presents its challenges.  First off, if the patty is not put together right, it falls apart on the grill.  Second, its shape will determine if you have a nice looking patty or something that looks like a scared puffer fish.  Lastly, having the grill at a proper temperature ensures burgers are fully cooked and remain moist.  Now, don’t let all that deter you, with a few easy tips anyone can rightly claim the title Grill

A Scared Puffer Fish

Master.

Let’s start with the grill.  If you have a gas grill, the preparation is straightforward enough.  Simply start your grill as normal but keep the top closed until the internal temperature reaches between 500° and 600°F.  At this point, open the lid, keeping your face back as the heat will rush out, and then clean the grill grates using a metal bristle brush designed for that purpose.  It is important to clean the grill when it is hot.  Avoid using chemical cleaners on your grill as it leaves a residue and can give your burgers a sour taste.  Let the heat do the work, the brush should simply knock off any “leftovers” from your last cookout.  Once clean, use tongs and a wet paper towel to wipe the grates, then close the lid.  Adjust the heat to between 500° and 550°F.

For a charcoal grill, it is the same process but you must let the coals heat completely before you begin cleaning.  Most charcoal grills do not have thermometers so judging the coals is required.  When all the coals have changed to a white ash color, use your tongs to arrange them in a bed that covers about half the grill area and replace the lid.  Let it heat up for about 5 minutes, then clean and wipe the grate like a gas grill.  The area without the coals will give you a warming area to keep your burgers hot without burning them or drying them out.  On a gas grill, simply turn one of the end burners off or down to low for your holding area.

Now for the burgers, I like to use 80% lean ground chuck.  Using anything leaner will leave you with dry, shoe leather.  For the dieters out there, most of the fat will cook off in the grill.  Besides, it is a holiday – give yourself a treat.  If you can find it, a course ground chuck gives a better result and freshly ground beats the prepackaged grinds every time.  Here is how I mix and cook my burgers for the grill:

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds 80 percent lean ground chuck
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil for oiling grill rack
  • 4 buns and desired toppings

Instructions

  1. Prepare the grill as mentioned above, and then let heat for 5 to 10 minutes before placing burgers on the grill.
  2. While it is preheating, break up ground chuck with your hands in medium bowl.  Use wet hands and handle the meat as little as possible.
  3. Sprinkle salt and pepper over meat; toss lightly with hands to distribute.
  4. Divide meat into four 6-ounce portions. Gently toss one portion of meat back and forth between hands to form loose ball. Wipe your hands often and rewet them.
  5. Lightly flatten into patty 3/4-inch thick and about 4 1/2-inches in diameter. Gently press center of patty down until about 1/2-inch thick, creating a slight depression in each patty; repeat with remaining portions of meat.
  6. Coat the grill with vegetable oil by dipping a napkin in a bowl with enough oil to wet the paper towel.  Use your tongs as you did when cleaning the grill.
  7. Grill patties, uncovered, without pressing down on them, until well seared on first side, about 3 minutes.  Flip burgers with metal barbecue spatula; close the lid and continue grilling about 3 minutes for rare, 3 1/2 minutes for medium-rare, or 4 minutes for medium.  Serve immediately.
  8. Claim your title as Grill Master!

One of the key steps is to make the depression in the patty’s center.  This keeps the burger from acting like a puffer fish.  Another point, the cooking times assumes you keep the grill above 500°F throughout the cooking process.  A lower temperature grill will increase the cooking time and dry out the burgers.  Cooking with this method will produce juicy and flavorful burgers.  Of course, you are welcome to add any flavoring your troop likes but I recommend giving it a try as I suggest above before you start adding other things.  You will be surprised as how tasty they are without all that other stuff.

Another key point to keep in mind, it is normally pretty warm outside when Memorial Day rolls around.  Raw meat needs to be kept cold until cooked and even the rare burgers need to reach over 145°F to be safe.  The warmer the food, the faster bacteria grows.  The last thing you want is for a rare burger to make you sick on a holiday.  It is truly a case of better safe than sorry.

Happy Memorial Day and please, please, please – remember just why we celebrate this day.  Give thanks to the men and women who have sacrificed so much and continue to sacrifice themselves daily.  That sacrifice is the reason we are able enjoy our freedom and a cookout in the first place.

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Freelance Friday: My Father’s Answer

May 25, 2012

In the summer of 2001, I was the director of engineering for a large company in eastern North Carolina; the day had been long and taxing, like most of my days during the heat of summer.  Increased power needs, to keep the plant cool, were taking our systems to the very limits.  How could I know later that night the test of my own limits would begin.

Like most boys, my father was my hero.  He was a big man physically, his personality more gentle than rough.  Given his size, it was easy for him to be that way.  For me, he always had the answer.  One day, during the first grade, he showed up at school to pick me up for a doctor’s appointment.  Filling the frame of the classroom door, I had to smile at the comments of my classmates: “He’s a giant!” exclaimed one; “Wow, is that you’re Dad?” asked another.  It was always like that with my Dad, he always commanded a calm strength, by either his size or his character.  Nothing could ever beat him in my mind.

It was 9:15PM one late August night.  I had just settled into bed, as the next day was due to start well before sunrise.  I almost did not answer when the phone started ringing; I was in no mood for another silly question from work.  I did answer.  The sound of my father’s voice gave me some concern; it was not our routine to talk on the phone much.  Someone must be sick or been hurt in some way.  My father and I had fallen into a strange distance from one another.  I guess most do, as sons become men on their own.  I braced myself and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I have lung cancer.”  The words swam around in some misty haze in my head.  I heard them; they simply could not be the truth.  After a few uncomfortable moments getting my wits about me, the questions started.  “What does this mean?”  “What are you going to do about it?”  What do you need me to do…,” I rapid-fired questions off at my father as if from the barrel of a machine gun.  “I’m going to the Mayo in Jacksonville,” he replied in a strong, calm voice.  Again, he had the answers.

Over the next few months, I made it a point to visit with my Dad.  Making time when something as this happens to a family member is understandable.  Reflecting now, I can only regret not doing more of that all along; we always make time when time is the commodity we see running out.  A surprise trip for Father’s Day was the first time I noticed something was different.  It was nothing overt or dramatic.  More the little things only noticed by someone that has distance between visits.  For the first time, true fear swelled inside me.  I would not allow myself to feel in my heart what my head was telling me.  It was not something I wanted to talk with my Dad about; but my head won out.  With his quiet dignity, he answered my concerns and reassured me.  I believed that if anyone would beat cancer, it would be him.

As the year went on, the heat of the new summer was approaching.  Things with Dad were going as well as anyone expected.  My fears began to subside.  Dad even joked at how the chemo was doing just the opposite of what he was told it would do.  Instead of losing his hair, a snow-white abundance covered his head.  No appetite?  Not my Dad!  He was eating everything in sight.  As late July arrived, I was hopeful about life.  My job was doing great; Dad was doing great.  Maybe the last year had produced for Daddy the result he has said.  He would beat this.  I was not surprised – Daddy always had the answers.

Again, a phone call in the night would change all that.  This time it was my Aunt, “You need to come see your Dad.”  This time there was no confusion.  It was something in her voice.  “He is in the hospital and wants you to come see him.”  The same call was made to my brother and sisters.  Daddy was calling the family close to him.

I talked with my boss and explained the situation.  To his credit, he simply told me to take all the time I needed so I was off on the six-hour drive home.  I went right to the hospital.  Finding my way through the labyrinth of wings, halls, and floors, I found Daddy’s room.  My stepmother was in the room with him.  I grew up with the fortune of four patents, my father and mother divorced before I was even in grade school and both remarried.  I had four good, strong role models in my life.  Daddy was sleeping so I greeted my stepmother, Pat.  She looked tired.

As a nurse, Pat was well accustomed to the routine of a hospital.  This was both a blessing and curse.  She could resolve any minor problems but it also gave insight into what was not being said.  She knew then my Dad’s time was limited and it showed.  She had spent the last few days at his side and that too showed.  She did not want him to be alone.  Looking at her and my Dad, I made up my mind then – I called work and told them I was not going to be back for some time.

Daddy needed constant care.  Pat had been that care day and night.  She would not go home to sleep.  Taking my father’s example, I calmly told her I would stay with Daddy each night so she could go home and sleep.  At first, she was against the idea.  I further explained that it would do no one any good, especially Daddy, if she became sick also.  Pat reluctantly agreed.

I spent that night in a chair by Dad’s side.  I gained a fuller appreciation of Pat’s exhaustion.  Hospitals are full of activity day and night.  Everything from the nurse making rounds to the person cleaning the hall seemed loud.  Looking back, I was being overly sensitive.  I have a deep respect for hospitals and the work they do, but it is not a good place to die, at least not for Daddy.  We all understood that was the road we were on.  The first order of business was to get Dad out of there.

The next morning, when Pat arrived, she asked me to visit a local hospice and see what I thought of it.  She had been by before she came to the hospital that morning and they were expecting me.  For most of us, judging the relative decency of a hospice is about as familiar as quantum physics, I had no idea what to look for or what kind of questions to ask.  Thank God, the staff at the hospice understood.  In a short time, I was convinced this was the place for my Dad.  By the time I relieved Pat for the night, Daddy was resting comfortable in a nice room at the hospice.  It even had a view.

My father needed assistance walking and was very weak.  He was in little pain and his mind very alert.  I truly think it was only the loss of his self-reliance that bothered him.  He did not like to ask for help.  Over the next few days, we came to an understanding of how we would operate in the environment of the hospice.  Each evening Pat would leave us with instructions for the night, we agreed to them but as soon as the coast was clear, Daddy set the schedule for the night.

Most of my life I knew my Father as a stoic man.  He did not suffer his problems on others.  Showing emotions did not come easy for him.  Now, within the confines of that room, our relationship changed.  Still not complaining, Daddy became more open with me about his feelings and life.  Not one time did I hear my Father complain about his situation.  I stated how unfair it was for him to have lung cancer; after all, he quit smoking over 30 years before.  He simply reminded me that life is all about choices.  He made his the best he could with what he knew at the time and was not going to regret it now.  Moreover, he did not want me to show him the sadness I felt.  He needed me to simply enjoy his company.  From that moment on, that is how it was.

Over the next week, my father was getting weaker and weaker.  More than assisting him now, I was carrying him to the bathroom.  I promised Pat I would not leave him for a moment, but I had to allow my Father the dignity of privacy when I could, he did not ask, it was something I just knew to do.  It is hard to convey how you can have such joy while feeling such total pain in your soul.  It was time for me to be there for my father.  I have wished my whole life to make my father proud of me, every boy does.  One bad night, that became the subject of our talk.

It was sometime after 2:00AM, Daddy needed to go to the restroom.  I was having a hard time by this point and he knew it.  When we finally got him back into bed and all tucked in he told he was very proud of me.  “I want you to know I am proud of you,” he started.  “Not for all this,” referring to staying with him at night.  “I am proud of you for who you are.”  Without saying a word, I sat in the chair and placed my head on his bed.  To say I was crying does not cover it.  I was sobbing.  Daddy simply put his hand on my head and told me it was OK.  Lying on that bed, dying, he still had the answers I needed to hear.

The next night things had worsened.  No longer would we be making trips to the bathroom.  No longer was his mind sharp.  It seems he had accomplished all that he needed to and was now ready to slip away from us.  We made it through that night without speaking.  The next day, Pat had arranged for Dad to get a bath.  They have a special one there for people that cannot take one on their own.  I arrived to find Daddy calm and relaxed from it.  He had said his goodbyes to everyone and no longer wanted visitors.  It was Pat and I now for the most part.  Daddy’s time was very near; Patty knew it more than me.  I still had that small part of me that refused to think this could be happening to him.  We settled in for the night.

I had been bringing a book with me for the last few days as Daddy mostly slept now.  I think I had read every book the hospice had to offer so now I was adding to their selection.  It was sometime after 8:00PM and Daddy’s breathing became labored.  I called the family caregiver (I am sure that is not the right term, but they do so much for people it fits much more than nurse),  he did not have to say it was time – I knew it.  I held Daddy’s hand for the last time and told him that I loved him and that it was OK, everything was done and he need not worry any more.  Even though I said it, it was more like him talking to me, trying to make me understand.  I did understand.  He gripped my hand, with that took one more breath, and was gone.

I called home to tell Pat and she came right away.  Strangely, I did not cry.  I thought I would.  I had calmness about me.  I had not yet understood the gift my father had given me over the past two weeks.  Now I simply felt at peace with him.  I think about that time now often.  Everyday something from it inspires me to do better.  I am so thankful to have had the privilege of spending that time with my father.  More than watching him die, I watched him live until the very end.  With his last breath, he gave me one last answer – everything is OK.

 

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Poetry Sunday: Short Poems

May 20, 2012

Poems come in all shapes and sizes and most certainly cover every imaginable topic.  There are the lengthy epic poems like Milton’s Paradise Lost, decreasing in size like Rumi’s quatrains, until we arrive at the short haiku masters like Bashō.

The long epic poems read like novels.  They have room for plots and changes in mood and character.  Length dictates shorter works to be more singularly focused.  In fact, singularity is what makes them work.  You might think a short poem takes but a moment to compose.  Sometimes they do, but more often short poems take as much, if not more, time to construct as poems with lengthier word heft.  There are styles, like the Shakespearian Sonnet, that dictate length, but many works of metered and free verse employ the brevity short poems.

I consider a short poem to be any that fits on a single page, and that means one column.  We all know there are people out there that can cram War and Peace onto a grain of rice, I mean reading poetry under normal conditions.  Others arbitrarily define short poems as having six quatrains of less, or twenty-four lines.  With my definition in mind, most poems are short poems.

For me, short poems are more about that singularity than a specific length limit.  A true master of the short poem is Emily Dickenson, one of my

Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype

two favorite poets by the way.  She used a delicate turn of phrase to draw the reader to a single thought.  Here is a nice poem of hers that illustrates the point:

Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

This poem obviously focuses on hope but expands out to show the impact hope has as well as the effect the world has upon hope.  With only eighty-two words, Emily explains one of life’s trickier subjects to grasp.  Yes, there is much more to hope than any one poem can encompass, but this is a complete view of one way to see it.  It is powerful and has a depth that goes beyond its few lines.  At the same time is shows strength, it also shows frailty.  That juxtaposition is common in shorter poems.

Not all short poems use comparison directly.  Here is a poem of mine that uses both simile and metaphor to explain what I mean by beauty.  It is markedly different from Emily’s example, and I do not mean to suggest I am as fine a poet as she is by the comparison.  While she employs direct metaphors (“Hope” is a thing with feathers) to open her poem, I use the poem as a whole to compare beauty to grace.  What the poems have in common is to explain a single thought.

The Beauty of Every Woman

The beauty of every woman
is not about the look
and to think it so would be the same
as the drop to sum the brook

Her soul’s the place where beauty writes
each volume of her tome
Then soon the essence of every book
finds her heart and calls it home

From her heart-page each measure is read
to discover her gentle ways
providing to all life’s caring love
and guide us throughout our days

The beauty of every woman
is all about the soul
Her spirit being life’s precious scribe
etching upon our scrolls

You see, true beauty is a woman
no matter what her face
for beauty is seen by special eyes
put simply, ‘tis godly grace

 

Bashō Statue

As a quasi-rule, the shorter the poem, the more it counts on comparison as a device.  As the length shortens, each word takes on greater importance in conveying the poet’s message.  On the extreme end are the shorter Japanese styles we in the West lump into the term haiku.  Traditionally, not only are haiku short, they also need to have a subject dealing with a season of the year or nature in some way.  Modern haiku are less restrictive on that point.  What all properly formed haiku have in common is juxtaposition and a cutting work known as “kireji.”  It is not always easy to pick out the kireji in haiku translated from Japanese; it is true that something is lost.  The most famous haiku is Bashō’s Old Pond:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

To really get haiku, the reader must take each line separately.  Read them with a pause, for a thought, and then read the next line.  Look at it this way, if we read “old pond a frog leaps in water’s sound, it is sort of flat.  If we read it with pause and use “in” as the kireji, it takes on depth: “old pond… | a frog leaps in | in water’s sound.”  It causes us to consider the thought of each line as well as the overall thought of the poem.  Read properly, a few little words can be very powerful.

I have not written many haiku.  Here is one that came to mind while watching a military funeral at Beaufort National Cemetery, in Beaufort, SC:

Sacred Stones

volley chases air
gathered loved ones flinch and weep
a lone bugle cries

It would have to be considered “westernized” as I did not employ a kireji directly but I do tie the lines together with the juxtaposition of “weep” and “cries.”  Still, it holds a powerful thought.  If you have ever witnessed a military funeral with full honors, this haiku will stir your soul, if not, it will give you an idea of it.

In the end, short poems are like a punch to the gut, they knock the wind out of you.  Each line has to get right down to business and move the poem along.  Part of the appeal is the space this leaves for the reader to fill in the gaps with their own personal feeling and experiences.  Maybe that is the appeal of short poems in the first place.

I will end with a free verse example that speaks for itself and has no need for an explanation as to my meaning.  It truly illustrates the emotional power a short poem can have.

Heartbeats

If all you wanted was my heartbeat,
you only had to ask.
Each beat, each pulse of it
is there only for you.
There is no need for deception,
though easy a mark am I.
I believe all you tell me, each lie,
I do not question them.
I cannot – I will not!
For I am lost in the promise of what might be,
what never was.

Take them all…
I have no further use for heartbeats.

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Poetry Sunday: Personal Poems

May 13, 2012

It is one thing to find a poem that fits a situation perfectly for you.  Imagine writing a poem for that occasion.  That is one of the best things about being a poet, the ability to express emotions in a way that reach others.  Of course, that assumes the poet is willing to share their poems.  In reality, sometimes you are and sometimes you are not.  For me, I am willing to publish most every poem unless to do so would cause some sort of indiscretion for another.

Now, personal poems are about much more than just romance.  While romance does fall into this category, it includes things like feeling a specific emotion, seeing something special, or having an epiphany of some sort.  The point is the feeling behind a personal poem is just that, personal to the poet.  Sometimes it is not easy to tell if a poem is personal or just the poet waxing on.  For me, any poem that makes someone wonder about it will have a personal connection.  It is how I write.

Even famous poets create personal poems.  Take Edgar Allan Poe, many of his poems are personal in nature.   Annabel Lee comes to mind.  We can speculate just who Annabel Lee was but we will never really know.  The best candidate is Poe’s wife, Virginia.  Here are the first two stanzas of Poe’s masterpiece:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

Just reading these two stanzas fills my mind with wonder.  Of course, I wonder about Annabel but also about the kingdom by the sea.  It is the magic of personal poems, we know there is some truth there, but we get to fill-in the blanks for ourselves.

In this next poem, it is personal but in a light-hearted way.  I was thinking about the duality of the situations life put before me.  I often tell people “if you get this poem, you get me.”  Of course, I do not know if that clears things up for them or makes it worse.  In the end, the poem is not so much about the choices presented to you, as it is about the choice you make.  Nothing says you have to accept things as they are, and I seldom do.

Life can be a turnip or a rose

Life can be a turnip or a rose –
One can give sustenance or beauty.
Life can be a feather or a brick –
One can go gently or break a window.
Life can be red or blue –
One can have passion or compassion.
Life can be a fox or a rabbit –
One can hunt or be hunted.
Life can be phone call or a letter –
One is right away, but then what have you got?

Life can be…
All things being equal, I’d rather be an apple.

That is an example of a poem that has a less than obvious personal connection.  Others are extremely obvious.  For example, you can pen a poem about something personal but it is personal in the same way to all of us.  We might use different words or choose to express a thought somewhat differently but we all understand the emotion as well as understand the poet was writing from personal feeling.  Given that today is Mother’s Day, here is a poem I wrote for my mom a few years back to which everyone can relate.

To Mom:

You are a lady,
that, you will always be.
You are sunshine,
there to brighten my day.
You are happiness,
to make sadness fade away.
You are wisdom,
to show me – when I stray.
You are my teacher,
to follow along the way.
You are my mother,
for that, I thank God each day.

 

While it is wrong to speak in generalities, I think in this case it is pretty safe to say everyone gets it.  It is an example of a personal poem everyone could use as their own, not that you want to, but you could.

That leaves the personal poems poets write for a singular occasion or person.  While we may recognize it is personal, we do not understand the context of the poem.  Still, it makes us wonder and that in itself make them worth reading.  We can imagine the circumstance and ponder at a name or other hint as to the identity of some unnamed person.

The Day I Found You

We sat upon a swing that day
and made the world our own
We talked with more than words could say
with seeds our thoughts had sown

For love began upon that swing
our souls became as one
For us the world had joys to bring
through this life that we’ve run

I look back now, that day I see
and know I found my soul
It’s from life’s dark you set me free
and with your love made whole

I love you for you, but really much more
you taught me to love, you opened love’s door

In this example for instance, you may wonder just who I wrote this for?  Where was the swing?  Whatever became of the relationship?  I could answer the questions but what fun would that be?

So, you see personal poems hold a special magic with poets.  You get to peek into our lives, to share our feelings and emotions.  While you may not know the who, what, or where, you will understand the personal nature of the emotions involved.

 

 

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Saturday’s Feast: Chili, It’s not Just for Winter Anymore

May 12, 2012

Now that we are basking in the warmth that comes with late spring, (at least for us in the Northern hemisphere) it might seem an odd time to write about chili.  After all, nothing beats a nice bowl of chili on a cold winter’s day.  As true as that is, there is much more to chili than that and relegating it to the dark days of winter denies you the opportunity to this rich, flavor-filled dish.  So, sit back, relax, and let me take you on a chili extravaganza!

The logical place to start when discussing chili is, well, with the chili pepper.  There are literally hundreds of different chilies around the world.  Regardless of where we now geographically associate a particular chili, they originated from Central and South America.  Christopher Columbus added the word “pepper” to the chili, as both black pepper and chilies add heat to a dish, but that is all they have in common.  They are very different plants.

Archeologists have found traces of chili cultivation going back over 6,000 years making it one of the first crops humans sought to control[i].  While there are many theories on just why we are attracted to chilies, for this post, let’s just accept that we are fond of their heat.  Chilies today have crossed all cultural lines and now add their influence to national dishes far removed from their roots in the Americas.  We think of paprika as Mediterranean but it is nothing more than ground up peppers of the chili family.  The cuisine of India would be very different if the chili had not been imported and cultivated there.  It terms of impact, it trails only salt and black pepper as the most influential of all spices worldwide.

OK, so what we here in the United States call “peppers,” like bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, Habanero peppers, etc. are all varieties of the chili plant.  As we know, there is a huge variance in the relative “hotness” of these varieties.  So much so, they have their own scale, the Scoville Scale[ii], it ranges from zero to 16 million units.  All right, some of you might know

Scoville Scale

the scale really does not measure heat in peppers.  It measures the amount of capsaicin in a substance.  Capsaicin is the compound that creates what we perceive as being spicy-hot.  For instance, bell peppers rate between 0 and 100 and jalapeños come in around the 6,000 to 8,000 range.  Habanero peppers range between 100,000 and 350,000 on the scale.  There are hotter peppers, but they are reserved for those individuals that like to go beyond what an average human can tolerate.

On a side note, capsaicin is the active ingredient in the pepper-spray that adorns many a lady’s key chain and is used by police departments around the world.  It has a Scoville rating between 1.5 and 2 million.  Now you know just why it’s called pepper-spray.  

With this variety of chilies to choose, it is understandable how so many dishes incorporate them in and produce such diversity in results.  Growing up, when asked if I wanted chili for dinner, my mind went to the ubiquitous chili that involves ground beef, an onion, some kidney beans and a packet of spices from the grocer’s shelf.  It was meaty, to say the least, but like most ground beef dishes, it lacked the depth achieved with putting in just a bit more effort.

Now days, I tend to make all chili from scratch.  If I have to feed a herd quickly, I might resort to some sort of mix but I will change it so much in the process there is no need to even read the instructions on the pack.  Regardless, the end result must have flavor to spare, which is the point of chili – flavor, not heat.

About now, your mind might be telling you “this guy is nuts, chilies add heat,” and you are right in most cases, but there is more to it than that.  The part of a chili that holds the vast majority of the heat is the seeds.  The internal ribs can be hot too but tend to be on the bitter side so I always remove them.  Knowing that the seeds add the heat lets you control it by simply adding more seeds to heat it up.  It is the meat of the chili that holds the flavor and each variety has its own unique flavor to add.  It is by mixing various chilies you can create a recipe that is unique to you.

With that in mind, here is a nice chicken chili recipe to use as a starting point for your own personal modifications.  It leverages everything that three types of chilies have to offer.  I started with a version found at the America’s Test Kitchen website.  If you are not a member and are looking for a good cooking website, I do highly recommend this one.

The recipe is packed with flavor and will drive your local natives wild as they are forced to suffer its wonderful aromas as it cooks.  By the time dinner rolls around, they will be sitting, pounding the table with clinched fists while chanting “Bring Chili Now!” as if they were medieval knights demanding a meal.   At any rate, try this one.  It will open the door to just how different chili can be.  It will make you wonder just how ground beef became the go-to protein for chili in the first place.

 

 

White Chicken Chili

 

Ingredients

 

  • 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves , trimmed of excess fat and skin
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 medium jalapeño chilies
  • 3 poblano chilies (medium), stemmed, seeded, and cut into large pieces
  • 3 Anaheim chili peppers (medium), stemmed, seeded, and cut into large pieces
  • 2 medium onions , diced
  • 6 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans cannelloni beans , drained and rinsed
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes)
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
  • 4 scallions , white and light green parts sliced thin

Instructions

 

  1. Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Bown chicken, skin side down, and cook without moving  for about 4 minutes. Turn chicken and brown on other side for about 2 minutes.  Transfer chicken to plate and let rest for a minute or two.
  2. Remove and discard skin.
  3. Remove and discard ribs and seeds from 2 jalapeños;then mince.  In food processor, process half of poblano chilies, Anaheim chilies, and onions until consistency of chunky salsa, ten to twelve 1-second pulses, scraping down sides of work bowl halfway through.  Transfer mixture to medium bowl.  Repeat with remaining poblano chilies, Anaheim chilies, and onions; combine with first batch.
  4. Pour off all but 1-tablespoon fat from Dutch oven, add vegetable oil if necessary, and reduce heat to medium.  Add minced jalapeños, chili-onion mixture, garlic, cumin, coriander, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.
  5. Remove pot from heat.
  6. Transfer 1 cup cooked vegetable mixture to now-empty food processor work bowl.  Add 1-cup beans and 1-cup broth and process until smooth, about 20 seconds.  Add vegetable-bean mixture, remaining 2 cups broth, and chicken breasts to Dutch oven and bring to boil over medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until chicken registers 160 degrees (175 degrees if using thighs) on instant-read thermometer, 15 to 20 minutes (40 minutes if using thighs).
  7. Using tongs, transfer chicken to large plate.  Stir in remaining beans and continue to simmer, uncovered, until beans are heated through and chili has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
  8. Mince remaining jalapeño, reserving and mincing ribs and seeds (remember to use the seeds to control the heat), and set aside.
  9. Shred chicken into bite-sized pieces, when it is cool enough to handle.  Discarding bones, they will not be useful for a stock.
  10.  Stir shredded chicken, lime juice, cilantro, scallions, and remaining minced jalapeño (with seeds if desired) into chili and return to simmer.  Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper and serve.


[i] Perry, L., R. Dickau, S. Zarrillo, I. Holst, DM Pearsall, DR Piperno, MJ Berman, RG Cooke, K. Rademaker, AJ Ranere, JS Raymond, DH Sandweiss, F. Scaramelli, K. Tarble, and JA Zeidler. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum Spp. L.) in the Americas.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/315/5814/986.short>.

[ii] Peter, K. V. Handbook of Herbs and Spices. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2001. 120. Print.

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