Dear Curtis:

Spring may have arrived today [Monday, May 13]. Two weeks ago I cleaned snow off the windshield. Today it was pollen. [Is that what I get for not driving for two weeks?] Nothing says “new life” more irrefutably than pollen. The sun is shining. It is 65 degrees (18 Celsius).

Our annual Mother’s Day walk through the lilac gardens at the arboretum was a bit anti-climactic. While the lilacs are behind schedule, the redbuds are in bloom, as are irises, tulips, and grape hyacinths. Apples are beginning to bloom.

It is Stevie Wonder’s 69th birthday. My sister introduced me to him when I was ten (Stevie had just turned 13 when the single, recorded when he was 12, was released), with this song:

In honor of Stevie’s birthday I saw the Aretha Franklin movie “Amazing Grace” today. Almost enough to give a non-theist religion. It is also the birthday of Professor Craig Werner. Who’da thought a guy who wrote his dissertation on James Joyce would end up as a professor of Afro-American studies and write numerous books on African American music, including the seminal “A Change is Gonna Come“?

While Stevie started as a prodigy, he really came of age with “Songs in the Key of Life”, an album which showed his breadth and depth as a songwriter and a musician. No single song can encompass that, but one of my favorites is “Sir Duke”:

Time flies and it is now Thursday. Last night’s ride began the warmup for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds, the midwest’s answer to The Death Ride – but on a midwestern scale – instead of five passes, you climb “40 significant rises” in the words of the organizers.

Our warmup included the (in)famous Mounds Park Road. The third of four climbs for the evening, it starts with a 5½ mile lead-in through a slowly rising valley. It’s mostly flat, but you don’t stop pedaling the whole time. With a tailwind, it might be a way to warm up your legs. With a headwind, you might wonder if you’ll have jellylegs before you even start climbing. For those of you in Alpine County, CA, it’s sort of like climbing up through Woodford’s before you even get to the climbs to Carson or Luther Pass.

You finally turn off the county highway and get teased by a brief downhill, then a few gently rolling hills and you wonder what all the fuss is about. Someone was nice enough to spray grade markers on the road. You approach the first and see “6%”. Not bad, just your average mountain road and a whole lot shorter. Then you see the ramp ahead and the “13%” painted on the road. You ride through various 12 and 13% markings and see a spot where it “levels out”. A rest, you think. A mere “9%” is painted on the road. Now you know why people talk about this road. The respites are the single-digit sections, and “single digit” means “9%”.

Still, it’s fun…and then you remember that the Horribly Hilly climbs it once at 6.5 miles, and again at 120 miles. No sweat; today is only a 30 mile ride, and there is only the final and beautiful climb to Brigham County Park after this. You never actually reach the top on this ride – when you get near the top, you turn left onto Ryan Road. If you were thinking about sitting up, catching your breath, and taking a drink of water – think again (or do it fast). Before you know it, you are screaming down a 40 mph curving and shaded road. You better pay attention.

It was also the first post-ride potluck of the season. Like everything else, the rhubarb is behind schedule. Luckily I froze some last year so I was still able to make a rhubarb pie – 4 cups of frozen fruit from last year, and a cup of fresh was all I could muster from this year.

By the way, the rest of you can read this. Curtis was a friend in LA; the last person with whom I kept up a snail mail correspondence. Were he still alive, I’d have written something like this as a letter to him. Since he’s not around to read my letters, that falls to the rest of you.

I can’t get away without acknowledging that this is posting on Syttende Mai (17th of May), Norwegian Constitution Day.

A Tale of Two Sundays

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. When I went to bed the last Saturday night in April, it was snowing. I awoke to fresh snow for my Sunday morning ride. We rode east (a rarity in these parts – folks generally ride any other direction – though there are some great places to ride to the east). The sun was bright, the air was crisp. I had just the right mix of clothing, though a few times I wished I hadn’t left the shoe covers behind.

Pre-ride snow removal April 28

Tulips and irises were peeking out through the snow. Trees were beginning to bloom; the greens stark against the new-fallen snow. By noon the snow had melted in all except the deepest shadows. We followed the ride with a concert by the Choral Arts Society Chorale. The concert was “Water: A Celebration in Song“, and included works from the 16th to the 21st century, from multiple continents, and featured a newly-commissioned work. The 2018-19 “Go Big Read” for the university this year is “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” and copies were provided to concert-goers. Keep an eye on this group if you’re in or around Madison WI. Concerts are built around social justice themes (the last one was immigration). They are thematically linked and musically diverse.

The first Sunday in May dawned bright and clear, with the temperature rising through the 60s already by 8 AM. Morning came early, as I had heard and seen Mahler’s 8th Symphony (“The Symphony of a Thousand“) the night before. The work got its nickname from the number of musicians involved. This presentation featured a mere 500 including an enlarged symphony orchestra and three choral groups. Five hundred musicians (including a magnificent organ) make for a spectacular sound. The day was especially long, as I had worked from 6 AM – 1:30 PM and gone to a retirement party after that. The party was for the retirement of the long-time director of one of the great day care centers in the world, Red Caboose, featured in the 1998 book “The Goodbye Window” by Harriet Brown. (Disclosure: Both of my kids went to Red Caboose and are in the book. I was once the treasurer.)

But as for the ride: I arrived at the meet-up point with the sky darkening and the wind rising. It looked like a squall that would blow through quickly. After standing around waiting for that to happen, we headed out. The sky was getting lighter but the wind stronger. About ten minutes into the ride it began to sprinkle lightly. It rained just enough to make the sun’s warmth welcome when it reappeared, and to make us look like Saturday’s Kentucky Derby riders, splattered with mud – but I didn’t have spare goggles to toss aside when it got hard to see. By noon it was warm enough to remove my jacket.

The week between rides meant the alfalfa and grasses were now a brilliant green. The delicate spring green of blooming trees (including maples and willows) made a stunning contrast with the deeper greens of the grasses and the browns of the dormant cornfields. By the end of the ride the sky was a brilliant blue and, when I got home, the laundry I’d hung out before the ride was dry.

So I was lying about the worst of times. While one ride included snow and the other rain, both were great rides. And today I set up my espresso machine and brewed my first espresso, after an hour-long meditation in an MRI machine.

First espresso

Happy Birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (belated due to technical difficulties)

New Directions Publishing

I still remember the first time poetry made an impact on me. I was probably a high school freshman. I was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Today (March 24, 2019), Mr Ferlinghetti turned 100. (If my mom were alive, she’d be a couple of months older than he…beyond that, I can’t think of anything they’d have in common.) He is not only a great poet, but runs one of the world’s great bookstores – City Lights, in San Francisco.

It was the day I learned of the power of language and the economy of words. The poem also became the climax of my best radio show: a 3.5 hour program called “Music and Poetry of San Francisco”. I showed up at the studio with a stack of books and records, a loose outline in mind. Each piece led to the next. I found the momentum building. Songs and poems started to choose themselves. The show ended with the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” and Ferlinghetti’s “Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower”. As usual, the show wasn’t recorded, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

tentative

Try as I might, I can’t manage to upload the poem in a legible manner. The link above will take you to the poem. As for the Airplane, I already linked to that song in https://halffastcyclingclub.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/

You can go back there to hear it again. To recreate that experience from 1977 or so, pull up the poem link, read, and fade from one to the other.

And I think we just had our last snow of the season; five months after our first snow of the season in this odd, split polar vortex year. I was in La Crosse, WI for the weekend. There was snow on the ground and on the roofs up there. As we entered Madison, flurries welcomed us home. Crocus poking up through the snow look like spring. Daffodils through the snow just look sad.

The Ballad of Milly & Gordy

Once upon a time, colored margarine was illegal in Wisconsin. Smugglers brought contraband across the border. This is the tale of one such smuggler.

First, there are a few things to understand about butter and margarine. The color of butter varies with what the cows eat. In winter it is a pale cream color. In summer it is more yellow.

Margarine is naturally white. It looks a lot like lard. The margarine makers didn’t think they could compete with butter with a product that looked like lard, so they dyed it yellow to look like butter.

The butter makers were now faced with a problem: their product didn’t look like itself; that is, it didn’t have the uniform yellow color that folks were trained (by dyed margarine) to think was “normal”. So butter is now dyed (usually with anatto, from the seeds of the achiote tree) so that it looks the same all year.

Now Wisconsin, being “America’s Dairyland”, didn’t want the competition from cheap margarine, so it was banned – unless you bought it in its natural white state. It often 1948-us-magazine-delrich-margarine-advert-KKK819came in a plastic bag with a little capsule of yellow dye that you could break open and squeeze through the margarine until it was a uniform yellow. Then, if you were really fancy, you squeezed it out into a mold to make sticks.

If you wanted margarine that was yellow and in sticks, you crossed the border into Illinois or Minnesota (or the UP, if you lived up north) to smuggle it back. That’s where Milly comes in. Milly was an ordinary Wisconsin housewife, not prone to breaking laws. But she had 6 hungry kids to feed and a husband who gave her a household allowance that meant corners had to be cut. Butter was one such corner.

When supplies ran low, Milly and her husband packed the kids into the station wagon and headed for South Beloit to score. The contraband was available right on the border – a store with a white line painted on the floor. On the Illinois side of the line, a cooler held the golden elixir. It was cheaper farther into South Beloit, but some days we were in a hurry.

We’d pick up a few cases – for us, the neighbors, the cousins. They’d go under a blanket in the back of the station wagon, along with the youngest child, or however many kids didn’t fit in the seats. The irony of the situation is that we would stop outside of Orfordville for Sunday dinner with family friends who were dairy farmers.

The smuggling came to an end, not with an arrest, but with a change in the law. Gordy was a State Senator. He was the chief proponent of the margarine ban. He finally agreed to take a taste test on live TV and, if he failed, he would end his opposition. He failed, and colored oleomargarine became legal in Wisconsin in 1967.

I thought that was the end of the story, though I wondered how Senator Roselip failed a test that I’m pretty sure I could pass. It turns out that his wife had been secretly bootlegging margarine and feeding it to him for years. He identified that familiar taste as butter. The law repealing the ban still forbade restaurants from serving margarine unless the customer specifically requested it.

A few years ago I talked with Peter Berryman, in hope that he would turn this into a song reminiscent of “The Limburger Ballad”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZEraW8K2G4

He hasn’t written it yet. I told this story to someone the other day and she said I had to write it down. So here it is. And just in time for the return of winter.