Soaring Capitalism and Boeing’s Max 8

I’ve long felt that the United States’ economic model is leading us to ruin. The grab-all approach to business and wealth strengthens the strong while shutting doors to the rest of us. Capitalism encourages greed and monopoly.
This graph clearly illustrates the rise of corporate profits (the blue line) and the decline of employee wages (the red line) over a sixty-three-year span. The reality I was born into is no more, thanks to Adam Smith and Ronald Reagan.

The Boeing story is a good example of how the pursuit of corporate profits can affect we commoners. Boeing is just another American company, churning out aircraft and doing their best to make a profit. They aren’t looking to hurt anyone. They do not want their planes to crash any more than their passengers do.

Boeing’s 737 Max planes are fitted out with larger engines placed farther forward on its wings, which tends to push the plane’s nose up. So Boeing installs an automated system designed to make the adjustments necessary to push the nose back down. The new model is approved by the FAA in 2017 and sales began to flow. Boeing is so happy about this they crow about it on their Website: “The 737 MAX is the fastest-selling airplane in Boeing history with about 5,000 orders from more than 100 customers worldwide.”

This is Boeing’s latest victory in their race against rival Airbus. There are really only two passenger plane manufacturers on the playing field. Boeing has done everything they can to make these planes attractive to airlines around the world. One big selling point is that the 737 Max is so similar to the older 737’s that airlines don’t have to spend money training their pilots to fly them. Although now the world is beginning to think some training would have been a good idea because these planes are not just like their predecessors.

Last October Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 went down within minutes of leaving the airport, killing all 189 people on board. A couple of weeks ago Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 had a nearly identical crash resulting in the death of all 157 passengers and crew. Both pilots were flying 737 Max 8s. We learned from the Lion Air flight data that the automated system pushed the plane’s nose down and the pilot responded by aiming the nose higher twenty-six times before hitting the water. Twenty-six times! In other words, the pilot and the computer were locked in a deadly battle for control of the plane. Experts believe the system was taking in a faulty sensor reading.

This morning The New York Times took the story one step further with Doomed Boeing Jets Lacked 2 Safety Features That Company Sold Only as Extras. The article explains how the two fatal Max 8 might have been avoided if the planes had come equipped with two (optional) safety features. Buzz! This does not look good for Boeing, I must say.

Although Boeing declined to disclose the price of the two safety features, The Times did some digging and learned that “Gol Airlines, a Brazilian carrier, paid $6,700 extra for oxygen masks for its crew, and $11,900 for an advanced weather radar system control panel” for a previous version of the 737. So these special features can be pretty pricey.

Add-on features can be big moneymakers for plane manufacturers.

In 2013, around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737 Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2 million on various options for such a narrow-body aircraft, according to a report by Jackson Square Aviation, a consultancy in San Francisco. That would be about 5 percent of the plane’s final price.

To save money and because the two, potentially life-saving, features were billed as “optional” by Boeing, both Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines declined to purchase Boeing’s “angle of attack indicator” and “disagree light.” Had the planes been equipped with these two features, the pilots might have stood a fighting chance.

But U.S. Airlines all opted for the optional safety features, didn’t they? Not exactly.

The three American airlines that bought the 737 Max each took a different approach to outfitting the cockpits.

American Airlines, which ordered 100 of the planes and has 24 in its fleet, bought both the angle of attack indicator and the disagree light, the company said.

Southwest Airlines, which ordered 280 of the planes and counts 36 in its fleet so far, had already purchased the disagree alert option, and it also installed an angle of attack indicator in a display mounted above the pilots’ heads. After the Lion Air crash, Southwest said it would modify its 737 Max fleet to place the angle of attack indicator on the pilots’ main computer screens.

United Airlines, which ordered 137 of the planes and has received 14, did not select the indicators or the disagree light. A United spokesman said the airline does not include the features because its pilots use other data to fly the plane.

At this point in time, all U.S. 737 Max aircraft have been grounded pending further investigation. As you may know, the United States waited until dozens of other countries grounded their 737 Maxes before following suit. Canada dragged its feet, too. I have to admit, the delay had me biting my nails.

How to tell if you are about to board a 737 Max: Look for the split winglets.

A few years ago this story would have gone right over my head, but with Bob’s busy flight schedule, I am fixated. I hear that Boeing is going to make this right by elevating both sensors from optional to standard. I hope they also recommend some kind of pilot training for this next generation of planes. 737 or not, this is not the same beast and pilots all over the world deserve to know what they are dealing with.

It makes me uneasy to think that a big company like Boeing will squeeze their buyers to the point of declaring essential safety equipment “optional.” Sadly, this is just one example of how capitalism has run amok. The larger the corporation, the more they get caught up in the competition game. It’s easy to turn a blind eye when you have your sights set on a goal, but that doesn’t excuse Boeing.

Meanwhile, we simple wage earners read the news and shake our heads. We poke away at our consumer debt, plant gardens, stretch the leftovers into second meals, and hope the FAA keeps the Max 8 on the ground until Boeing makes them safe for everyone to fly.

Bye Bye Baby

The first time I saw her she was standing idle at the curb, shining like Pegasus in a sea-colored cloak. She looked like freedom incarnate. It had been eight months since Bob and I sold our tattooed silver TDI Beetle and we were ready for a new set of wheels.

We hadn’t needed a car in Nicaragua. In fact, cars were forbidden on Little Corn Island, and although having a car would have come in handy in Alaska, we hadn’t stayed there long enough to invest in a vehicle.

I believe every American can recall their first car in great detail. The specifics of their successors blur as the years speed by, with precious few worth bringing up in conversation. My first was a robin’s egg blue Rambler wagon that I acquired for $125. I named her Susi and slid around Denver in overdrive until I wore out the gear. Other notables were the hulking, solid steel 1950 Ford sedan that I drove out of a farmer’s field for $175 (never did get the brakes fixed); the 1972 Mercury Montego in arrest-me red with the sporty black vinyl top, and fantastic stereo system; and Christine.

We picked Christine up for a song—a mere $1200 for a ten-year-old Ford Escort with five-on-the-floor and 65,000 miles—and drove home to Berthoud, Colorado. Just like that, we were independent. One minute we were not totally American and the next we were, confidently down-shifting at stop signs and pushing her into fifth to blow past the pack lumbering up I-25.

After finding her lights on for the third time, we named her Christine after Stephen King’s novel about a possessed car. Our Christine was configured in a way that made it easy to bump the light switch when sliding out from under the steering wheel and she had long lost the ability to ping us in alarm. We bought a pair of jumper cables to keep in her ample trunk and grew accustomed to the tentative approach of helpful souls coming to let us know our car was sitting in the lot with her lights on.

Christine was our only transport for four years and for that alone she stands out. I think every couple should share a car for some period of time. It kept us from becoming too autonomous and enhanced our scheduling and communication skills. Sharing Christine helped us point our lives in the same direction.

We became a two-car family with Blanche, a 1987 white Mercedes turbo touring wagon who sometimes depended on the kindness of strangers. Blanche was joined by Oliver, an olive green Outback gifted to us by beloved neighbors Jason and Haruka, and most recently Val, a “Kinetic Blue” 2017 Chevy Volt.

Now, fourteen years after buying Christine, there were four cars milling about our yard and it was time to thin the herd. I moved Christine from her place beneath the sweet gums to a sunny patch of lawn in front of the house. Bob handed me a razor blade and I scraped off the trash sticker and the rasta baby decal. I removed my hair ties from the glove box and reached into the trunk to pull out the catch-all milk crate.

When the day came, a nice young couple arrived to collect our old friend. Bob and I stood together on our soggy lawn and watched Christine’s tail lights as her new owners drove away. She paused, blinking at us with her turn signal before turning south towards the highway, and I’m pretty sure she flashed her headlights one last time.

On the Alerts

My Google Alerts serve me well. For example, on the day the news story broke, I learned that Timothy Cox was sentenced for 2nd-degree murder. That’s the driver who recently widowed one of our friends. I understand some might think it odd to stalk stories in this manner, but I prefer to be in the know.

My friend Shelley wished someone had informed her that one of her “Grannys” had passed. How unsettling to walk into her nursing home room and find a different face. Although it would be nice if a family reached out to their loved one’s caregivers, I imagine this is low on their priority list when faced with funeral arrangements and estate management. An emailed obituary notice would have given Shelley some warning.

In a similar situation, I was able to help my mother search for a childhood friend. She hadn’t heard from Ann in months and was worried, so I set up an alert and eventually Ann’s story was revealed.

It’s easy to set up an alert. Type your search into Google, and click on the “News” tab. Refine your search to your liking, then scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Create alert.”

One of my 2019 goals is to increase comprehension and retention, particularly in regards to current events. I took out a subscription to The New York Times, signed up for some of their newsletter with links to dozens of stories, and began taking their Friday News Quiz. I also get newsletters from the The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The New Yorker. I had a lot of catching up to do, but the big picture of world news is finally coming into focus. No more getting left behind in adult conversation.

However, I’m definitely ready for something innocent after immersing myself in the top news stories. This is where my google alert on Pittsboro steps in and provides relief.

 

Small town news is a refreshing break from deposed cardinals, economic disparity, global warming, nuclear armament, despots, war, and hunger. In fact, I’ll go it one further. I’ll keep the good news flowing with an alert on some of my favorite things, beginning with:

I would love to hear what topics bring a smile to your face. Which news stories make you happy?

Blue Valentine

I learned early on that you’ve got to pay the price. The lesson so touched one of my little brothers, that Mom recalls him sitting on the potty, legs dangling, chanting, “Pay price, pay price.” Apparently, Bob’s family stamped him with a similar meme. “No pain, No gain” has served us both well. He and I have made many hard decisions and taken immediate action; changing the way we eat, perhaps, or pulling up roots to reinvent ourselves in another part of the world. It’s one thing to say, “I’m gonna,” and quite another to accept the burden involved with making it happen.

I am super proud of Bob for biting the bullet and taking on a job that would make my head explode: reams of documentation, many-paged questionnaires, air travel, hotel rooms, driving into a Fargo-esque polar vortex after dark in an unfamiliar vehicle, and a skyrocketing learning curve that would make NASA proud. Bob has taken on every bit of this and more in order to cushion our golden years. This past week he was in training with the administration team at SBS Global Services in Emeryville, California and will continue stuffing his brain with new information next week. In the evenings he squeezes in sales tax reporting, payroll, and bookkeeping for a second, part-time job. Not many 60-year olds would accept this challenge or willingly take on this level of mental punishment. Few are made of the stuff Bob is made of.

Meanwhile, I’m home, humming Christmas songs like I do, and shoveling compost into buckets. I’m dumping them into nine empty totes that Bob Sawzall-ed in half for container gardens. After adding peat moss and vermiculite, I stir vigorously with a spade shovel. Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas is on repeat and I think I know why. Bob won’t be home for Valentine’s Day this year. First time ever. Later, I light the flame beneath a pan and find myself humming,”The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too WIDE” from Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man.

I deposited Bob at RDU’s Terminal 2 well before dawn a week ago Saturday and watched him walk away. When I got home and saw his coffee cup in the dish drainer, tears stung my eyes. I knew I wouldn’t see it on his desk for nearly three weeks.

Yes, we Skype every evening and that certainly helps. “I’m getting more quality Bob time on Skype than I would if you were here,” I quip. We laugh but we both know this isn’t true. It’s just one of those things people say, like “Oh, I’ll be fine,” or “Don’t worry about me, I’ve got this.”

The truth is my home feels strange without my Bob. Little things make me jump when my lover isn’t home. Last night I heard a couple dozen rounds echo through the woods, and jumped up to lock the door. As if anyone with a boot couldn’t kick that flimsy lock apart. I think of how lame that lock is every evening before I click it shut on my way to the shower. I have a lot more bravado before the sun goes down. After it gets dark, our home’s chirps and pings take on a sinister hue.

Even my laundry routine is upset. I peer into our hamper and shake my head, “Not today.” Finally I have enough for a load, and when I dump the clean clothes onto the bed for a solo laundry party (Bob calls it a laundry party when we fold our clothes together) I realize that not even one sock in this pile belongs to Bob.

On Valentine’s Day, my valentine will be 2,806 miles west. We will get up and go to bed at different times. We will text each other during the day and Skype in the evening. We’ll say, “I love you” just like we do every day. We’ll say “I miss you,” and “This is the last time we’ll be apart for this long,” and congratulate ourselves on being grown up enough to bite the bullet and do what it takes to steer our lifeboat toward solvent harbor. We’ll go to bed alone and wake up alone. It’ll be alright. This is the last time.

Drama Management

Drama Junkie Gladys Kravitz from “Bewitched”

January has been a real test. I’m settling into a new job and I won’t lie—the learning curve momentarily took my moxie away. A new operating system, new software, a new type of business, and a tiny keyboard had me wondering if there was something wrong with my brain. But I rallied and have recovered my stride.

So far there is no drama associated with my new gig and I aim to keep it that way. When I mentioned this at the Country Farm and Home counter the other day, paying for bird seed and wheat straw, a customer behind me snickered. I turned and we both laughed. “As if!” she said. “Yeah, right?!” I blurted, enjoying the moment, and then in my signature off-the-cuff way I said, “Drama happens everywhere if you stick around long enough. It builds up like plaque!”

It occurs to me I’m not even sure what the word drama means so I start asking around. One bright young woman defines it as “Things that make you suck in your breath real quick.” The dictionary defines drama as: Any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.” Armed with two workable, albeit broad interpretations, I got to work categorizing situations that fit the mold.

First off, there is my own personal drama. Although this type of drama might seem unavoidable, I actually do have control over how much drama I solicit and how heartily I react. One woman told me she was much more into drama when she was younger and I realized this was also true for me. We have both learned to keep ourselves out of trouble and to temper our responses to the unavoidable.

I’m no longer a catastrophizer, my own word that means someone who takes a little bit of drama and cooks it up into something big. My mother used to call this “Making mountains out of molehills.”

Next, there’s the type of drama we experience vicariously. You can’t build intimate friendships without sharing a little of your own inner workings but it’s essential to know how much to share, and when to turn it off—how to toe the line between venting and obsessing.

Our outer circle of friends is where I need to watch my step. Here I’m learning to strike a balance between interest and involvement. Sometimes it’s alright to dismiss a situation with, “Well, it’s their life, their marriage, their children…” and other times I have to reach out and weigh in. Especially when I can see that whatever just happened is horribly unjust or unfair. Either way, it’s a good idea not to do too much thinking about what’s going on in the lives of people I don’t know terribly well.

And then there is the drama of unmet actors on the world stage. For me, this is the safest kind of drama, a cathartic exercise that helps me calibrate my moral compass. This kind of drama is the story of how human minds work. News stories evoke responses like, Don’t that beat all?” and “How does something like this happen?” Voyeuristic drama feeds the creative juices my writing head requires without risking contamination.

A few days after my Country Farm and Home encounter, I marched into Chatham Marketplace for Brussels sprouts and was stopped short by a bank of yawning shelves. Craig, busy as ever, twinkle in his eye, quipped over his shoulder, “Drama!” Hmm, I thought, I guess non-human breakdowns can be classified as drama, too.

Like salt, drama spices up my life. And like salt, a pinch brings out the flavor, while too much renders food inedible. Unlike salt, I don’t have to add drama to my life. Drama happens when things break down, when I receive a letter from a friend, when the car leaves me stranded, when politics goes my way, when the heat pump fails, or when deer eat our broccoli. Drama is joy and loss, birth and death—unavoidable, and essential to a full and interesting life.

Stuff happens all the time to rock our little worlds. All the planning in the world won’t prevent software changes from messing up my mojo, or grocery stores from running out of Brussels sprouts. Be cautious about adding outside drama. One day you may be blindsided by an indigestible tsunami of grief: a loved one snatched by death, a cancer diagnosis, a slip and a fall. Err on the side of boring. Savor those stretches of bland. Add a pinch of drama when necessary. Season to taste.

2019 Intentions – Quality over Quantity

The curtain opens on 2019 with Bob and I settling into new jobs, and with enough dry and above-freezing weather to weed, mulch, and plan this year’s garden. We’ve added eight raised beds and gone over the seed catalogs. In addition to what we grew last year (potatoes, leeks, peppers, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cherry tomatoes, husk cherries, lettuce, fall greens, and broccoli) we’ll add spinach, edamame, carrots, beets, and crook-necked pumpkins. And we’ll push the envelope of our comfort zone with Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe.

My personal garden, the traits and habits I cultivate with intention, will also look a lot like last year. Although I have to admit I was tempted to skip making resolutions after reading an article about the down side of striving for perfection. The people we compare ourselves to, those who have made it to the holy grail of success, sometimes surprise us by ending up dead by their own hand. At some point we need to reach complacent self-acceptance. But then I listened to a podcast that recommended we trust ourselves to know which aspects of our lives were good enough and which ones need work. There is nothing wrong with coasting and likewise, nothing wrong with stepping on the gas.

When I asked Bob if he will set some goals this year he said he is always working on something and that January has no more significance than any other month. “Every day is a new year if you’re Bob; every day is your birthday, every day is Christmas,” he said. A banner above the shop floor of a manufacturing company we both worked at flashed into my mind. The banner read, “Continuous Improvement,” which is a good approach to both life and gardening.

But I love the clean-slate feel of a new year. I like the idea of a hard stop with its opportunity to look back, take a reckoning, and re-calibrate. So I will take a few moments to do both.

2019’s theme is “Quality over Quantity” and my goals are:

Reading – Slow down, read for fun, comprehension, and retention.

Conversation – Again, slow down, pay attention, damp down my inner dialogue and absorb what others are saying.

Everybody needs more pot pie!

Writing – Slow down, write for fun, play with ideas in my journals, and write at least one old fashioned letter per month.

Sweets – Ramp up the savory with new pot pie recipes while damping down the sweets. All those sugar bombs are not doing me one bit of good. Sure, there will be cookies in the chest freezer, but those are there to make my life easier, not sicker. And it isn’t just the cookies; it’s the chocolate and other candy treats I drag home from the grocery store. The added benefit of my “Pot Pie of the Month” plan will be an increase in my pie dough expertise.

My self-improvement theme for 2018 was “Focus” and my goals were:

Bake more cookies – success!
I baked nearly a thousand cookies last year! I learned to keep the freezer stocked with grab-and-go goodness, turning cookies into my new go-to potluck offering. No more scratching my head over what to bring, life is simpler with cookies in the chest freezer.

Focus on the good – success!
Because my job as property manager required I focus on problems a.k.a. things that aren’t working, I hung up my hat and found a less-demanding job, one in which I didn’t have to be in charge.

Focus on my friends – success!
I shrunk my circle of friends to a dense core, and found I had more time for family during a challenging year.

Mind my own business – success!
I didn’t even have to work at this one. I naturally lost interest in other people’s problems after the employment change and social focusing. Less drama meant more solitary time, and more energy for my life with Bob.

Reading List – success!
I read thirty-four books, exceeding my goal of twenty-five and more than doubling the fifteen books I read in 2017.

Snitch Pad – success!
I now travel with a notebook where I jot down ideas and interesting catch phrases that I can turn to when I need writing inspiration.

Submissions – some improvement!
I submitted eighteen essays, missing my goal of twenty-four submissions, but exceeding 2017’s eleven. I also got better at teeing up the next project after turning in a story, but I had a lot of trouble launching into writing mode.

And there you have it, my goals for 2019 and a reckoning of last year’s intentions. For me, happiness is both acceptance of where I am now, a settling in with comfortable habits that work, and the challenge of reaching towards a better me. It takes wisdom to know which aspects of my life qualify for status quo and which need a little more work. This year I choose to take my foot off the gas, savor the good life, and harvest the rewards.

Christmas Time

On Christmas Eve, time hits a warp and bumps me into unexpected glimpses of Christmas past. Taking out the compost after dinner I’m transported to three years ago when the fence was still open to the farm, a path crunchy with fallen leaves worn between our house and Haruka and Jason’s. I squint into the darkness, searching for the soft glow of their porch light, remembering how we’d already have planned, and been cooking towards, a mostly home-grown Christmas meal.

Pulling our fake turkey roast from the freezer I have a sudden longing for winter-less Maui, where I never had to pull on jacket, hat, and gloves to make it to the compost pile. Back then my skin never chapped and my hair occasionally smelled of salt water. Fifteen years ago, we would have been planning a vegan Christmas feast with Pam and Shaun, the folks who showed us how to enjoy not eating animals.

Twenty-three years ago we would have decorated a tree, and wrapped presents would be spilling from its base across the living room floor of an old Colorado farm house. The next day the girls would arrive and fill the house with jewels of laughter. Emily would have been eight, Amy six, and Molly three. That was the last time we set up a tree – the lights, ornaments, bulbs, and painstakingly crayoned paper garlands long gone from our peripatetic lives.

This Christmas morning, I squint into a layer of frost, imagining Nana’s painted plywood reindeer and Santa sleigh racing across her snowy lawn. Fifty years ago my five brothers and I would make Christmas wrapping fly around the living room like a scene from Edward Scissorhands. We would still be living in an old New Jersey neighborhood lousy with kids, there for so long (six years) that we imagined we’d never move again.

In those days Nana was in charge of pulling together the family dinner. We’d head over there after mass to find her stone fireplace flocked with fake snow, more presents underneath her tree for us and our cousins, a turkey in the oven, and pies cooling on racks. Oh, to have a time machine and go back to this idyllic moment!

Back then it was almost always a white Christmas and we kids didn’t hate winter. We burrowed through the drifts to make caves and Dad wowed us by making candy sugar snow cones. We sang carols, there were candles, and no babies ever cried.

Back then everything was perfect. The spirit of Christmas illuminated all our hearts. Peace on Earth reigned. No one languished for want. America was great, no crimes were committed, and all was calm and bright.

I think.

Maybe I don’t really want a time machine after all. I’d hate to find out that those times were ordinary times just like these times. I’d hate to find out we were fighting wars and going hungry, that there were people being robbed or raped or killed on one of those stellar Christmases past.

So, forget about that old time machine. Instead I’m going to sit down with the seed catalogs to envision a succulent future. I’ll plan peppers and cantaloupe and maybe even artichokes.

Much love and fond memories for all who have shared Christmas cheer in years gone by!

 

Just Desserts on Airbus A320

Shadows on the Big Thompson

You can fly for peanuts, but don’t let one cross your lips.

Towards the end of November, Bob got assigned of a couple of farm audits in the-middle-of-nowhere Kansas and, in a stroke of brilliance, decided to route himself through Denver, book an extra four days, and bring me along. It had been two years since we’d seen our Colorado family and friends and everyone we pinged was happy to arrange their calendars to include our impromptu visit. We packed and flew out at dawn on December 2nd.

Although we had pre-board passes, TSA pulled me out of line to examine a Kentucky Fried Tofu sandwich, a bag of homemade cocoa mix, and some leftovers in a Ziploc Twist ‘n Loc. They ended up giving the sandwich and cocoa a pass, but held on to the mashed potatoes, sausage gravy, and Brussels sprouts. “I’m sorry,” the woman explained, “mashed potatoes fall into the ‘gel’ category.” She offered to dump and rinse my container but, embarrassed, I demurred.

We ate in the air, sharing Bob’s sandwich and some peanut butter crackers I found at the bottom of my purse, speculating on whether or not the flight attendants would offer free water while listening to the loudspeaker sales pitch. If we really got thirsty we could invest $2.99 in a bottle of water, a soft drink, coffee, or tea. Coffee and a snack could be had for $4.99.

Our time in Colorado was rich with bright memories: an evening with Emily, Tyler, Nolan, Amy, Molly, Shane, Steven, Caroline, and Ned, savoring Amy’s hand-harvested wild Idaho rice and homemade Thai stew, watching three-year-old Nolan negotiate his world of towering adults; frigid strolls with Cathi, Shirley, Rob, Amy, and Bob; a nostalgic Data Entry Products holiday party at Sharyl and Rob’s with their son, Logan, daughter, Mikki, and friends, Margie, Tim, and Jeff; ambushing Sharon at the Habitat Thrift Store; pizza with Julie; a late lunch with Shirley, Cathi, and Fred; and plenty of lounging in our hosts’ sunny guest rooms.

Air Over Kansas

Beyond its dry clarity, the quality of daylight made me feel closer to the sun. Which of course, we were.

On the flight home we were again bombarded by a garbled sales pitch. In a hurry to get into their jump seats, the flight attendants whipped their words to a blur like cars on a runaway train.

This time, I had filled a plastic bottle at one of the post-security check water fountains, and TSA had not confiscated our lunch: a pair of breakfast burritos. Just as before, I’d been asked to step outside the line to watch a man rifle through my purse. He held up the offending item and raised his eyebrows. “That’s lunch,” I volunteered. Bob and I held our breath while the man palpated the gel-like contents of our burritos, then shrugged and placed them back in my bag. Just in case, I had brought two peanut butter Tiger’s Milk bars.

We were in the air when the speaker crackled again. My ears pricked up at the word “peanuts” and my face fell when I realized they were asking us to not eat anything containing peanuts. “Did they say we can’t eat peanuts?” I asked Bob, folding my arms across my chest. “That’s what I think I heard,” he said.

After devouring our burritos, I sat and stewed. I was still hungry and that tiger bar was calling to me from the bowels of my purse. I’m of an age where I remember free peanuts and in-flight dinners on porcelain plates. Being told my food was off limits was bad enough; I’d be damned if I was going to pay $3 for a tube of Pringles!

I reached into my bag, unwrapped dessert, and took a big bite. “Are you hiding your power bar from the flight attendant?” Bob asked, glancing at my hand beneath the tray table. “Yes,” I said, chewing furtively. Embarrassed by my juvenile act of rebellion, I chomped down quickly and caught a hunk of lip between my teeth.

Double damn, I thought: crime doesn’t pay. And it turns out that just desserts taste like blood and peanuts.

Prosperity Day – the view from right here

Our willow oak on Thanksgiving morning

It’s Thanksgiving, a holiday with many meanings here in the United States. Around the world, expats spend weeks sourcing ingredients for their traditional meal. For most Americans, this day remains an honored ritual of sitting down to eat with family. At some point we will pause to reflect on those things we are grateful for: our health, prosperity, progeny, and luck. Few face the holiday without a tinge of guilt for the gluttony it represents – gluttony at the expense of the original inhabitants who were swept aside to make way for our American Dream.

This morning, our lawn blushes green between patches of hoarfrost and russet leaves. The oaks have shed half their leaves and what remain are shimmering gold. Cold-weather crops dominate our garden: sturdy collards, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale. Tiny lettuces have arisen from seed in the tote behind the feathery asparagus patch. The roses are still in bloom and the azaleas have decided to join them.

It’s turned cold. North Carolina cold. 40 degrees Fahrenheit feels punishing after the coddling 65-degree days. I took advantage of the sun and harvested all 130 pounds of ginger and turmeric. I raked leaves to blanket empty garden squares, and perched on an aluminum ladder to wash windows. I took a pair of old washcloths and rubbed black mold from the daffodil siding and spinach-colored door on our back porch. I painted a weathered joist with auburn stain and seal, doing my best to rub out the black patches before immortalizing their lava lamp shapes with fat brush strokes. I lay in the hammock and talked on the phone, swept leaves from the tree house, and went walking with my friends.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I drag a bulging bag of gratitude into the sun for examination. In it, I find:

  • Bob, a man who continues to love and support me despite my age and cynicism
  • Three daughters, five brother, and two parents, alive and reasonably healthy
  • A roomy, dry home with a modest mortgage payment
  • Retirement, a long-awaited event which has turned my life into one big game
  • The mechanics who keep our three old cars on the road
  • My health, still running on all eight cylinders with minimal leakage
  • Friends old and new: loyal companions, sincere, supportive, and entertaining
  • My New York Times subscription, for painlessly putting me back in the know
  • Our deep freezer, stocked with roasted peppers, peanut butter cookies, and other delights
  • Neighbors who would drop everything and come to my aid should I fall off a ladder or choke on a cookie

Bob’s Thanksgiving Eve haul from the Pittsboro Farmers’ Market

The life Bob and I have engineered for ourselves is so spectacularly fine that we marvel at it every day. Luckily, we were born at the apex of American prosperity between the Great Depression and the slow slide into corporate rape beginning in the 70’s. Our families gave both Bob and I enough of a start to put us on our feet, but not enough to prevent us from developing a healthy work ethic. We worked steadily for forty years, for big corporations and small, family-owned businesses.

We paid our dues and lucked into a couple of corporate windfalls. At the apex of Bob’s career, we followed our hearts and jumped off the tread mill. We reinvented ourselves as serial expatriates, highly-employable for our skills and mobility. It was the things we decided not to do that set us free: to stop owning and rent instead, to not make any more children, to give away our last pet, and most of our belongings. We chose instead to value experience over security, stewardship over ownership, relationships over toys, and to live frugally, to garden and cook and eat in.

For this I am grateful. I need look no further than our yard for spiritual guidance, inspiration, and meaningful work. This morning, I have a clear vision of the world outside my window. I know where I am, how I got here, and thanks to whom.

Homegrown for the Holidays

Not to jump the gun or anything, but we have in our deep freezer the ingredients for my Nana’s dressing, what we used to call “stuffing” because it was stuffed into the turkey and baked with the roast. It features chestnuts, one of the finest foods on the planet.

My Polish Nana’s was an exceptional cook and the wizard behind my family’s annual Thanksgiving feast. Nana was raised in Brooklyn before the American Chestnut blight made this delicacy scare. By the time I arrived on the scene she was making stuffing with Italian chestnuts and paying premium prices. Leaving them out was out of the question.

This dressing is the true centerpiece of the spread, not optional in the least, and not merely a side to carboholics like myself. The crunchy nuttiness of the chestnuts and the spicy and succulent sausage compliment the seasoned bread so well that everything else on the plate is merely there to riff off its perfection.

For years I made this dressing as soon as Italian chestnuts appeared in the produce aisle. But, not lately. Thanks to decades of work by plant geneticists the blight resistant American/Asian Chestnut was developed, sparking a movement to restore chestnuts to the Appalachians. Homeowners began planting seedlings, anticipating holiday magic in the years ahead. Happily, my vegan sausage version of Nana’s dressing has recently begun featuring chestnuts grown within fifteen miles of my home instead of Italian imports. Many thanks to Tami Schwerin and Lyle Estill for sharing the fruit of their optimism. Nana would be proud!

Here is the recipe. You will also find it archived on our recipe site here.

Chestnut Sausage Dressing – Vegan

Nana’s time-tested masterpiece, veganized

Ingredients:

  • Chestnuts, roasted, removed from their shells and chopped – 2 cups, or about 1 pound
  • Gimme Lean Sausage, fried – 1 pound
  • Bread Cubes (stale preferred, previously frozen is fine) – 6 cups
  • Margarine – ¼ cup (half a stick)
  • Onion, diced – 1 cup
  • Celery, diced – 1 cup
  • Vegetable Stock – 1 1/2 cup (I use vegan chicken base or boullion)
  • Poultry Seasoning – 1 tablespoon

Directions:

  • Prepare chestnuts by roasting, removing the nut from its shell, and chopping.
  • In a large pot sauté onion and celery in margarine.
  • Add stale bread cubes and toss.
  • Combine poultry seasoning with stock and drizzle over bread, tossing to moisten.
  • Fry sausage in separate pan.
  • Fold in fried sausage and pre-cooked chestnuts. Do not over-stir. What you don’t want is a big glob of dough.
  • Taste and adjust seasoning. Resist the urge to add more stock as much as humanely possible.
  • Place in a greased casserole and cover.
  • Bake at 375 degrees, covered, for 30 minutes.
  • Uncover and bake for another 15 minutes.

Notes

  • Best to do the chestnuts and bread cubes ahead, especially if assembling this on Thanksgiving morning. You can also chop the onion and celery ahead, and fry the sausage. Heck, you can make the whole casserole several days before the big day and just slip it into the oven like a pro. Last-minute stress adds no flavor to a fine dish.
  • To roast chestnuts, score each nut with a sharp knife (this is the dangerous part!), place in a flat pan, and bake, covered, at 400 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. I do not bother soaking the nuts or double scoring with an X. At 30 minutes, test one nut for doneness. Toss the other nuts around in the pan if returning to the oven. The chestnuts will be done when the shell peels back revealing the starchy golden nut and the nut is mealy, but not mushy. Remove from shell when warm, before the membrane no longer pulls away from the nut easily. Keep them in a covered pot to continue steaming as you peel. After peeling, you can freeze them in case harvest comes well ahead of Thanksgiving. I recommend buying 2 pounds so you can enjoy some while peeling and setting aside your 2 cups.
  • If using fresh bread, cut bread into cubes, lay on a cookie sheet and bake at 200 degrees until the cubes firm up – half an hour to an hour.
  • I do not recommend substituting corn bread for wheat bread.