Sunday, January 27, 2013

doing the beeswax dippity-do (in other words, dipping beeswax candles)

6:45 a.m. The olive oil tin, filled with beeswax and a little water, is on the burner. I don’t know how long it will take for the wax to melt, as the last time I did this, the only other time I did this, I tried melting the wax on the wood stove. When I realized standing next to a hot stove dipping candles wasn’t the brightest way to go about it, I moved the tin to the kitchen, all the while feeling that carrying a hot tin of hot wax through the house wasn’t the brightest idea either. This morning, I start with the wax in the kitchen.

Beeswax in olive oil tin on the burner.

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my first acquisition of 500 lbs. of beeswax. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with all that wax, but I had some ideas. I started out struggling to make the perfect votive and also made sheets of wax to roll into candles of various sizes. I made collages by pouring wax into old hive frames, adding little cabins made of birch bark with smoke made from autumn leaves curling from the chimneys. I bought candle molds—the frog, the skep, the “happy bee” pillar—and I found a simple recipe for honey and beeswax lip balm. I’ve spent three years pouring and rolling candles, buying many more molds, making a couple, making beeswax ornaments and collages, concocting lip balm, experimenting with variations on all of the above, and breathing deep because the only thing I can figure is the smell of beeswax is so delicious I cannot stop.

8 a.m. Breakfast, a second cup of tea. The wax is melting, a little molten stuff bubbling up through the block like a geyser.

I am under the impression that most people think of dipped beeswax candles as the traditional beeswax candle, and I conjure the image of two tapers on either end of a single length of wick hanging from a wooden peg against a rustic backdrop. I’ve always wanted to dip tapers, to give that to people, but somehow getting to it became a challenge. It was well over a year ago that I watched a YouTube video on dipping, and that’s when I bought the olive oil in the tin that is now on the burner, because you need something tall enough to dip the candles into. I had to consume the olive oil, which I did, and then I cleaned the tin, put it on a shelf, thought, someday, I’ll dip tapers.

Around the time I bought the tin, I talked about dipping candles with my beeswax mentor, a long-time beekeeper and candle-maker. He told me of a contraption he’d made that enabled him to make something like a hundred pairs of candles a day, but setting up the contraption, as I recall, took five or six days. (Surely, I exaggerate; I don’t remember the details of his operation, and he hadn’t dipped in a while anyway, so.) My beeswax bible describes the dipping process as one that requires pulleys and “wheels” and “gates” and “hook boards.”

In October of last year, my sister sent me pictures she had taken of a beeswax candle-making place in Spello, Italy. The place seems to be set up as an historical restoration of sorts, but no one was there to tell her about it, so we don’t know for sure. But the images—yes, someday, I thought, I’ll dip tapers.

Spello, Italy

Someday came in December, when a customer wanted candles of a certain width to fit a holder, a holiday decoration. I decided to try dipping. It worked. Now, I’m getting back to it.

9:15 a.m. As the wax continues to melt, I brush my teeth, get dressed, do the dishes, which is so nice to do, because the kitchen water lines froze earlier this week and just unfroze yesterday. So it’s nice to have running water in the kitchen again. It was that spell of more than 24 hours below zero that did us in. Wind chills bottomed out at about 30 below, which is dang cold, but the coldest morning was the one with no wind at all, just 15 below, absolutely still and quiet. When Buster and I went out at some ungodly hour before sunrise, the snow sparkled. I almost felt like we had caught it out, caught the snow having too much fun, a gala party, while the humans huddled and shivered indoors. Buster got swamped in it; I ran out in my socks and jammies to rescue him. This morning, with 10 degrees on the thermometer, it’s downright nice.

I’ve cut ten 21-inch-long strands of 4/0 square braid cotton wick, folded the bunch in half, secured the fold with a rubber band. The plan is to dunk once all together, then separate and continue dunking one pair at a time. I brought in a clothesline, stringing it between the beams that frame the entry from the living room into the kitchen. I’ve also wrapped the olive oil tin in aluminum foil, hoping to move along this melting beeswax.

9:45 a.m. The beeswax has melted!

10:45 a.m. Each pair has been dipped 10 times, and I just finished rolling each candle back and forth on a smooth surface to straighten it, even though I’ve also been straightening each just by pulling after each dip. In addition, I sliced the drippy accumulation of wax off the end of each candle.

Ten pairs after 10 dips, hanging from a clothesline.

Breakthrough: In the middle of the second dipping I realized I had two hands and could be dipping two pairs at a time rather than one.

Mishap: Pair #10 fell into the vat. Luckily, I was able to rescue it with one finger.

Irritation: Buster is at my heels and toes as I move between the dipping tin and the clothesline.

Now: Green tea is brewing; back to work.

Note: Next time, lower the clothesline.

The eleventh dip of Pair #2.
11:45 a.m. Brilliant idea: I’ve abandoned the clothesline for a wooden drying rack. Height is perfect and it allows for hanging each pair with space between the candles, which is increasingly important as the candles thicken. Now, after 20 dips, candle width is about three quarters of an inch.

And thank you, Buster, for retiring to the sofa.

Brilliant idea.

12:15 p.m. After 25 dips, the tapers are done. Each is about seven-eighths of an inch thick at the base and seven and a half inches tall. I trimmed the bottoms after every fifth dipping and added fresh wax to the pot as needed, about two pounds overall. Now, it’s time for lunch.


{Every Sunday, you just never know.}

Sunday, January 20, 2013

the day the tv production company from brooklyn, new york, telephoned pea pickle farm

So when the television production company from Brooklyn, New York, called the other day, I was cleaning the bathroom and mulling over some statements my congressman, Dan Benishek, had sent out in a press release regarding gun control. My thoughts were nascent, knee-jerk, unfocussed, and influenced in part by a local news report that offered several opinions on that same issue from folks attending a gun show.

Benishek’s press release begins with a vague defense of our Second Amendment rights. Surely people will be claiming that the intent of that amendment is one thing or another, whatever suits their viewpoint, for as long as this debate over gun control continues, and that Benishek uses it to bolster his view of the issue is predictable, but strange. The current gun control proposal does not take away anyone’s right to bear arms. Nonetheless, my congressman states: I don’t think the President’s plan to take guns out of the hands of responsible people is the answer. Sometimes, when I have a knee-jerk reaction to something, like I did to this press release, I wonder if that wasn’t the intent—to make people react without thinking. It works, but it’s wrong. And by playing to that, if he is, Benishek does us all a disservice. I want those searching for a solution to the violence in this country to be free to consider all aspects of the problem without that consideration being used to attack them with a discussion-ending, inflammatory statement like they’re taking away our guns!

My congressman has a further argument: “Guns are not the problem, evil people are.” That’s quite a statement. At first, I must confess, until I started writing about it, I read and remembered this sentence as “Guns do not kill, people do.” I attribute the misreading to my overall knee-jerk reaction and marvel that such a reaction can last so long.

Here’s the thing. If a person believes guns are not the problem when it comes to everyday shootings as well as mass shootings, then that person, when searching for a way to minimize the number of everyday and mass shootings, will not be taking into account one of the factors that is present in every shooting, namely, the gun. To me, that seems reckless. Benishek says he believes that “we need to have a national conversation about violence,” yet how do we do that without discussing the weapons of violence? I truly do not see how it is possible to discuss a shooting, any shooting, in such a way that tries to pick it apart in hopes of preventing its recurrence without including the weapon.

Guns are not the problem, evil people are.

If evil people are the problem, does that mean the problem is paranormal, beyond our control? When have we, as mere humans, ever been able to control or combat evil? Should we just give up? Or is it like in the movies, the TV shows, the video games, and even the wars near and far where evil is conquered with firepower, with guns and more guns and bigger and better guns. As long as our arsenal is bigger than evil’s arsenal, will we be OK? Is that it? Is that what my congressman is trying to tell me?

So this is what was beginning to happen in my head when the woman from the TV production company in Brooklyn, New York, telephoned. The phone rang, and I was in the middle of cleaning the bathroom so I answered the phone with damp, vinegary hands lightly coated in baking soda. She said something about my blog and Pea Pickle Farm and the Upper Peninsula and beeswax and interesting characters. This is just an idea we’re tossing around the office, she said, and meanwhile I’m trying to figure out what kind of scam this might be. But, as she talked, and as I began telling her to slow down and back up and asked some questions, I decided she might be legit. Her name was Blake. The company is Punched in the Head Productions. I talked to her.

One of the things we talked about was culture shock. She wanted to know if I experienced culture shock moving from Chicago to the U.P. Well, yes. And I still do. It’s no longer a shock, per se, but almost every day I feel as if I am walking on a balance beam, surefooted, yet on a narrow track. I feel at home here in the U.P., have from the start, but I do not have that innate knowledge of life and culture that is particular to a place and maybe especially to a place that is sparsely populated, somewhat isolated, and itself strongly rooted in other cultures. Although I left Chicago in part because I felt I did not belong there, I knew Chicago and its northern suburbs in a way I will never know the U.P.

I mentioned to Blake the gun issue as an example of this culture shock. And it is a good one. I remember attending an Evanston City Council meeting many years ago when a ban on handguns was being discussed. I supported the ban. I did not know anyone who owned a gun, and at the time, to me, guns seemed unnecessary and dangerous. But in the U.P., it’s possible that everyone I know owns a gun. They are a huge part of the culture and are, in a way, necessary to the culture because of hunting. I know people who hunt deer, bear, geese and ducks, quail and turkey, and everyone, it seems, takes potshots at rabbits. Most will eat what they kill, and I find myself not having a problem with it. I hear gun shots every now and then, when I’m out walking, and it does not bother me. If I had heard gun shots in Evanston, however, well, that’s another story.

But mostly, Blake and I talked of other things. I think the TV show, if it happens, is to be a documentary, a history of sorts, but once again my mind knee-jerks, and I think of The Andy Griffith Show. Remember that episode when the TV folks (or were they movie folk?) came to Mayberry, fell in love with the setting and the people, and then bam-zoom Floyd’s barber shop became a “tonsorial parlor” and Aunt Bee dressed Opie in short pants and a funny hat and Barney masqueraded as some kind of storm trooper? It seemed like all the time in Mayberry Hollywood Hotshots were coming in to bamboozle people, to rob the bank while  townsfolk let tinsel go to their heads. All except Andy, of course. Remember “Sheriff Without a Gun”? That’s the kind of show I’d like to see.
“Woman Without a Gun” Woman defends her right to remain unarmed in a world increasingly cocked and ready to fire. Until somebody shoots her. Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Benji, and a cat.

Meanwhile, winter has returned. It's a beautiful thing.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

the routine of buster

Like most dogs, Buster enjoys routine, and one of his earliest was to ask to go out in the middle of the night, say 3 a.m., to pee. What this entailed was opening his crate, at which time he would take a long slow stretch, yawn, and shake his body until he was airborne. Then it was out the door, into the big front yard, and I would spend the next 15 or 20 minutes exposed to the world, in my pajamas, maybe a jacket, waiting for Buster to pee, because if there had once been a sense of urgency it was now gone as his nose, small as a button on a cocktail dress, grew ten times its size taking in the scent of the great outdoors, its tantalizing fragments of stories and ideas, and if our neighbor Linda happened to be walking by (she played trumpet in a jazz band and often was just getting home from a gig, or, if our timing was really bad, she was just bringing Poco out for a little walk) I simply allowed myself to float into the surreality of chatting with a neighbor over a chain link fence at 3:30 in the morning while a six-pound, hairless puppy I had found in a gutter a few days before sniffed noses and wagged tails with a Yorkshire terrier dressed in plaid. Buster would forget all about peeing until we got back inside. That was 18 springs ago, when we lived in Chicago, and I’m thankful that routine did not last.

The daily carrot routine started 15 or so years ago, when I was working 9 to 5. Upon arrival home at about 5:30, the dogs would go out (Queenie being the other dog), and then I would stand at the kitchen counter, slicing a carrot, sharing pieces with Buster. If I somehow forgot—like the time that twig jumped into the spokes of my bicycle’s front tire, bringing my commute to a halt one block from home, flinging me over the handlebars, resulting in a gash on my chin—believe me, Buster would hound me until I remembered. Ever try slicing a carrot while holding a bloody towel to your chin? But here’s the thing: Compared to the size of his head, Buster’s eyes are big and very round, like large chocolate drops in a cute little terrier face, reminiscent of those creepy paintings of big-eyed children that used to be so popular, and he has these floppy ears that perk up when he is anticipating anything, which is most of the time, and he is, quite simply, cute and irresistible. Why do you think I picked him up out of a gutter? And kept him?

It was in that suburban house, where we moved when Buster was about two years old, 15 pounds, and fully furred, that many of the food-related routines took hold. Queenie, a border collie mix from a shelter who joined the family a year after Buster, benefited from these routines, but she did not always partake. For example, it was many years before she showed more than a passing interest in carrots. At first, she would take a piece of carrot, spit it out, take another piece, spit it out, you get the picture. Luckily, I had Buster to clean up after her. Then, one day, she simply started eating the carrots. From the start, though, she enjoyed the truffles, though not quite to the extent that Buster did. Officially called Paris Puppy Truffles, I made these treats using a recipe in a little dog treat book I no longer have, so cannot properly reference, but I remember they were made with whole wheat flour, almond bits, carob powder, a little oil, an egg, and rolled into golf balls. They baked for half an hour. For many years, the daily truffle routine was the highlight of the day. Whereas Queenie simply grabbed the truffle and ate it, Buster preferred that the truffle be rolled from the kitchen into the living room, onto his truffle rug. (When we moved from the suburban home to the U.P. house, which was carpeted, I brought along the truffle rug, and when it got ratty, bought a new one.) Buster would charge the truffle, come to a dead stop, stand over it, guard it, stare at it so intently I often could not move myself until Buster suddenly did, either letting out a sharp bark, or a quick tail wag, or a pounce that sent his butt sky-high and the truffle maybe nowhere or somewhere but oh, the plans!, and the truffle would, indeed, come to be buried minutes or seconds later under the mounds of wadded up truffle rug, all designed and arranged by Buster with much grunting and yapping and the use of the nose and the legs and not just a little imagination. Once the truffle had disappeared, it had, of course, to be resurrected, to be found, searched out, and unburied, which required, of course, more of the same grunting and whining and nosing and scrabbling about, and every once in a while I had to help, as the truffle became hopelessly lost, maybe shot across the room, coming to rest underneath the sofa, unbeknownst to Buster, still staring at and searching under the rug, but he’d be the first to tell you: those truffles are wily. Eventually, much like a normal dog, Buster would eat the truffle, and I would watch him, and sometimes he would look at me as if to say “What?”, and then, with great satisfaction, he’d return to his snack.

Buster’s latest routine began in September. I marked it that morning in my journal: I held Buster for a while. Nice! And so the day began … Buster’s never been much of a one to be held, unless there was imminent danger, like the time the greyhound pinned him to the sidewalk, jaws clamped around his neck, or the time two Jack Russells bolted from behind a house, came tearing across the street, barreling toward us in the most frightening hullabaloo, in times like that, taking shelter in my arms was tolerable. Other times, he’d rather not be held, unless you were occupying a window seat in the car. But now, since September, after Buster gets up in the morning, goes out, comes in, he stands in the middle of the living room until I pick him up. We settle into my chair next to the fire, his head resting in the crook of my left arm. If he’s shivering from the cold, I cover him with a blanket. As time passes, his body relaxes, becomes heavy, he dozes, perhaps even snores. If Elliott joins us, taking the lower lap, as it were, he snuggles in and applies the Purr Cure—For Whatever Ails Ya!

I have this thing about the animals who have died since Buster came to live with me. The first, a dog named Dandy, died less than two months after Buster arrived. Dandy will always be in my heart, and his song is “There Must Be an Angel” by the Eurythmics. Queenie died a little over two years ago. She will always be at my side, and her song is “Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen. Goldie, the cat who showed up shortly before Buster and who died two years ago, will always be at my feet. His song is “And When I Die” by Laura Nyro. Buster has a song, “He’s A Tramp,” from the Disney movie, but Buster's version is by Bette Midler, and Buster, I know now, will always be in my arms.

Buster writes about Queenie 

Read last week's post, or listen to it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

gone for a walk

With the sun streaming in and The Old One—that’s Buster—asleep, I sneak out for a walk. The snow on the porch roof melts and drips, a steady plinking and plunking on the mere six inches of snow on the ground. Flies buzz inside and outside the cabin—only in Michigan's Upper Peninsula have I been bothered by flies in January—and I'm beginning to wonder, what kind of winter can this be? I head out in just a couple layers of T-shirt, old jeans, and hiking boots.

Sun streaming in on a Saturday afternoon.

On the way to the river I see a trail of stories crisscrossing the thin snow, tracks of coyote, deer, rabbit, mice, voles, maybe even the badger. Rabbit and deer tracks are easy to identify, but the rest have variants—for instance, the coyote could also be the dog across the road—and light dustings of snow have obscured some of the prints, like a blurred photograph, a plot with red herrings.

Trail of the Unknown Critter

The river is narrowing, its icy, snow-covered edges creeping toward each other, widening, becoming well-beaten paths for wildlife, or the dog across the road. My neighbors tell of a large, lone wolf in the area, and some say there are packs, but I don’t know. Oh! To see a wolf on the river’s edge, to hear one sing! Mostly I hear coyotes yipping at silvery moons, and occasionally I spy one or two loping across the fields. But all I hear right now is the river’s gurgle and the chatter of crows and chickadees. I pause for a bit, wondering if the bald eagle will show up, but he does not.

Heading up the river bank.

I head away from the river to the clutch of white pine on the southwest edge of the property, following a path I've made on my own and with the help of the deer. It cuts across a marsh that though frozen is yet a bit spongy, then through a thicket of tag alders before reaching the clearing that is dominated by one immense pine, the Mother Pine, as I call it. I cut a few sprigs of long, soft needles and hold them to my nose, so pungent I swoon. My hand becomes sticky with sap.

Branches of the Mother Pine.

It’s a good day for traipsing, but also a good day for chores, so I head back to the cabin to stack wood on the porch and to do a little laundry, hanging it in the sun to dry. Buster and Elliott are now awake, and while trying to coax Elliott out of the cabin, a load of snow slides off the roof with a sudden swoosh-bam. The cat scurries back in. Meanwhile, Buster, The Deaf One, does not hear the news about the sky falling. He walks in and out, in and out, as on this January day the door stays open.

But now I must close it. So long!