Even big boys need toys

IMG_7955A COMMON PIECE OF ADVICE you might hear if you’re approaching retirement: Don’t make major plans for your first year. Don’t plan to save the world. Don’t plan to be elected mayor. Don’t plan to master the piano and have your first recital at a major concert venue.

Instead, just give yourself a year to get accustomed to the strange new reality of not going to work every day.

As advice, it’s not a fit for everyone, and not a perfect fit for me, but it has its merits.

I have ambitions about volunteering to help with trail work this summer on Lopez Island, or helping out with the food bank, or volunteering to help with the recycling operation at the Lopez Dump.

But so far in the 9 months since ditching the daily work world, I’ve found plenty of demands on my time, just to get established in our new home. And, unashamedly, I’ve felt the need to indulge in pastimes and hobbies I just didn’t find time for in my previous life.

Yesterday I bottled my first batch of home-brew beer. It will be ready to drink in two weeks (I’ll let you know how it comes out). Last week, while Barbara was in the city for medical appointments, I took over the dining table to work on a Revell car model that I got for Christmas.

P1240033.JPGThe “fleet” atop our fridge: pink Cadillac, Mini Cooper, VW Love Bug, Karmann Ghia, classic hot rod and a ’57 Thunderbird.

Model building has been an on-again, off-again hobby since I was a kid. It’s something my daughter, Lillian, and I have done together since she was a youngster, and we have a collection of half a dozen completed models sitting atop the fridge in our cabin. We’ve never obsessed about perfection — sometimes the glue goes all over — but it’s been a fun father-daughter activity over the years. It’s a total geek fest, during which I can feel my blood pressure drop like mercury on a January night.

This latest is a model of the first car I owned. I bought the car in my senior year of high school with my earnings as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant in Bellevue. It was a 1965 Chevy Impala two-door hardtop, which I called Ethel. It was a big tank of a car with a 283-cubic-inch V8 that never ran on more than about six cylinders, but it got me and friends to Lake Sammamish State Park for swimming on idyllic summer days in 1974. I bought it for $200 from a classmate’s father, who had put many miles on Ethel in his job as a salesman for Montgomery Elevator Co.P1230943.JPGThe color was supposed to be “crocus yellow,” but tends a bit more toward canary melon or cantaloupe.

At Christmas, Lil helped me with the first steps of painting and gluing. Last week, I proceeded to paint the body of the car, trying to duplicate Ethel’s pale yellow finish. (Chevrolet had called it “crocus yellow.”) But even after adding almost a full bottle of white to the bright yellow Testor’s enamel that was my base, the best I came up with was sort of a cantaloupe color. Oh, well.

“Actually, it’s probably what Ethel looked like before the paint faded,” Barbara suggested, always the one to offer encouragement.

I expect some will say, “Poor Brian doesn’t have enough to do up on that island.” But don’t feel bad for me. I’m delighted to return to one of the simple pleasures of my youth. 1-anchor

Eatin’ lucky for 2019 with John and Jenny

P1230932 - Copy.JPGHoppin’ John, a New Year’s Day dish popular in the South, is hearty comfort food that’s just as tasty on an island in the San Juans.

IMG_7955WE TRIED SOMETHING NEW for our New Year’s Day dinner: Hoppin’ John, a black-eyed pea dish from the Carolinas that’s said to bring luck and prosperity in the new year, and who couldn’t use more of that?

It also fit our vegan diet, with peas and rice as the main ingredients. To the Center Island version Barbara added peppers, carrots, celery, garlic and purple shallot along with some seasoning salt in place of the Creole spices we didn’t have in our cupboard. Some variations also feature ham hock, bacon or country sausage, among other things. Here’s a link to a classic recipe from Southern Living magazine.

P1230929.JPGChopped celery, carrot, shallot and garlic joined black-eyed peas and rice in our slow cooker on New Year’s Day.

Tradition has it that the black-eyed peas are symbolic of pennies, and a coin is sometimes added to the pot (a tooth-breaking ingredient we omitted). Another traditional addition to the dinner is cornbread, adding more prosperous overtones  because of its gold color. And there’s all sorts of other quirky culinary symbolism built up around this simple comfort-food dish.

We’re also following the tradition of having the leftovers for dinner on January 2, when the name changes to “Skippin’ Jenny,” connoting even more prosperity based on the frugality of eating leftovers instead of throwin’ ’em to the hogs. Or, on Center Island, atop the compost pile.

Bon appetit, ya’ll. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

New Year’s fun and games

P1230922.JPGBarbara dubbed this a hen party of female purple finches at our feeder this morning. As with peacocks, the boys get the flashy color.

IMG_7955WE HAVE A FLASH MOB at our bird feeder on this mild and sunny New Year’s Day in the San Juan Islands. We just counted 12 birds vying for a spot at the food trough. The forecast is for rain and winds to return for the rest of this week. One of the local avian meteorologists must have tweeted a warning to stock up on winter rations.

Barbara and I are keeping a New Year’s Day list of birds we see out our window. So far we have purple finches (male and female), spotted towhees, red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees.

Yesterday, a New Year’s Eve bonus included two bald eagles circling high in the blue sky above Nuthatch Cabin, riding the air currents for a good half-hour without flapping a wing. It gave me a shiver (the good kind) every time the golden afternoon sun glinted off their white feathers.

As the rains return, there’s fun to be had inside. One of my Christmas treats was a beginner’s home-brewing kit, indulging a long-held goal of making my own beer (inspired some 30 years ago by newspaper colleague Michael Zuzel’s home brew, which he named “Cape Alava Ale” after a favorite Olympic Coast hiking destination, with the motto, “You can’t get any Wester”).

P1230907.JPGOh, the anticipation: Your faithful correspondent can’t wait to fill his glass from the jug of brown ale brewed in The Nuthatch’s kitchen a couple days after Christmas. The gadget atop the jug allows brewing vapors to escape without allowing foreign bacteria to get in.

Two days after Christmas, daughter Lillian and I brewed up a gallon of English brown ale, which should be ready to bottle in a couple of weeks. I’ve limited myself to small batches because we live in a small cabin without a lot of extra space for beer gear. Because beer-in-the-making likes a dark, quiet spot with controlled temperatures (as many of us do) I’ve built a cozy nest for the gallon jug in a corner of our bathroom. The jug is wrapped in towels and sits next to an oil-filled radiator that keeps it around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so the yeast can happily consume the malt syrup (creating alcohol).

In coming weeks I’m also looking forward to spending time in my writing hut working on a new mystery novel. Perhaps while sipping an English brown ale. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Happy 2019, blog-keteers. 1-anchor

Winter solstice brings some peace on Earth

P1230855.JPGA winter bouquet of wild Nootka rose hips, snowberries and salal, all gathered on Center Island, decorates The Nuthatch cabin’s entry.

IMG_7955AFTER MORE THAN A WEEK OF LASHING WINDS, this winter solstice brought peace to our bit of Earth: a calm day of weak but welcome sunshine on Center Island.

Barbara and I grabbed the chance to scoot across Lopez Sound in WeLike, our 1957 Skagit runabout, to go get some fresh eggs from the red house. (A hand-painted sign at the corner of Lopez Hill Road and Center Road says simply “Brown eggs at red house,” with an arrow, so that’s where we go to pick up cartons of fresh eggs the color of creamy cocoa and leave our money in a tin outside. We’ve never seen the chickens or the farmers. It’s simply “the red house.”)

On the way there, WeLike threw us a challenge. The boat’s big Evinrude lost power 100 yards from the Hunter Bay dock. It didn’t stop, it just slowed dramatically, so we were able to creep up to the dock. Probably a clogged fuel filter, possibly easily solved. It meant we used our little 6-horse kicker motor for the return trip. A slower crossing, but we made it.

On our isolated island, we’re welcoming the solstice. The days have been so short. We notice it much more now that whim and serendipity rule our days rather than office schedules and commute times.  In practical terms, it means I have less time to chop firewood in the afternoon, or that we have to head home from Lopez by 3 if we want to be in before dark.P1230874.JPGAs seen in our tree-filtered view from The Nuthatch cabin’s deck, the winter solstice sun sets around 4 p.m. over Lopez Sound.

Tonight an all-but full moon will light up the night along with the Christmas lights that decorate our deck rail. Before bedtime last night I stepped out and saw the distinct shadow of our cabin cast by a moon that shone like a locomotive’s headlight in the inky sky above. Appropriately, the December full moon is called the Cold Moon.

Tonight we’re lighting candles and feeding a fire to celebrate the turning of the season. Like ancient Druids, we look forward to the return of longer days. On our little island, sunrise and sunset set the rhythm of our lives. 1-anchor

Challenges on Christmas Island

P1230794.JPGThe Nuthatch’s brightly lit Christmas tree, an 8-foot Nordmann fir, helps fend off the winter gloom outside. It made a long trip to get here.

IMG_7955IT’S JUST AFTER 5 P.M., pitch dark and blowing like stink, a few days before the winter solstice. It’s been blowing for a week. The 100-foot firs around our cabin are swaying like willow saplings. Branches break and fall with loud thunks on our metal roof. It’s unnerving, and a little scary.

On this isolated island in the San Juans we’re more isolated than usual. Gusts to 50 mph mean we don’t venture out on our boat, even for the quick trip across Lopez Sound, where wind-driven whitecaps do a frothy tarantella. Amazingly, we still get mail every day through the U.S. Postal Service — that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” thing apparently includes wind, though I worry about the postal contractor who risks his life crossing Rosario Strait in a small boat to deliver Christmas cards to us.

United Parcel Service isn’t so intrepid. No hunky guys in brown shorts make it out here. They contract delivery by plane to our grass airfield. From Anacortes, our packages go by ferry to a base in Friday Harbor, from which the small orange planes of San Juan Airlines fly them to Center Island. But they don’t fly when it’s too windy. We’ve had packages sitting in a warehouse in Friday Harbor, nine miles away, since last Tuesday, including some key Christmas gifts destined to go under our tree — providing they get here. Comet, Cupid, et al, where are you when we need you?

Getting a Christmas tree here was a challenge in itself. It might seem silly to buy an 8-foot tree in Seattle and bring it to this forested island — coals to Newcastle, right? — but we don’t have enough trees of the right size on our property to harvest one every December.

So we found a nice specimen at Home Depot, rolled it in a tarp like a giant holiday burrito, secured it with duct tape and lashed it to a bike rack on our Honda Civic for the 70-mile freeway drive to Anacortes, followed by a bouncy trip across Rosario Strait on the Paraclete Charters water taxi. Wrapped up like that it looked a bit like a dead body, so we referred to it as “Uncle Fred” when friendly folks helped us hoist it on and off the boat.

The nice Nordmann fir Barbara picked out this year made the trip just fine and looks dandy just inside the front window of The Nuthatch. We decorated it yesterday and today encircled it with the customary model train set. When the train whistle blows, we can’t hear the wind roaring outside. Whoo, bloody whoo!  1-anchor

Close encounter of the Frosty kind

IMG_20181202_145152212~2We buzzed over to Lopez Island for a dump run and to pick up a few groceries on a bright and sunny December day. Happened across this guy out in the fields along Fisherman Bay Road. We suspect a local farmer had a hand in his creation, since he’s cleverly crafted from silage wrap, with what looks like tractor mirrors for eyes. I’m not sure where anybody found a scarf that long. Island time means you have time to create an eight-foot snowman at the edge of your pasture, I guess. Got a smile out of us. 1-anchor

Ready for a deep and dark December

IMG_2883.JPGA bowl of Center Island apples, soon to be Barbara’s spicy apple butter.

IMG_7955OUR HERMITAGE, which we call The Nuthatch, is providing a cozy place to nest as the days grow colder.

That’s encouraged my wife, Barbara, to indulge her creative energies in various ways. One example is the new slippers she made for herself using a process called “felting.” She tells me it’s a process many people first discovered by mistakenly putting a prized sweater through a washing machine and having it come out “just the right size for one of their friends’ babies.”

To make her slippers, she first knitted a colorful pair of what might have passed as galoshes for a Sasquatch.

IMG_2877 - Copy.JPGThe “before” shot: Barbara’s Sasquatch slippers.

I mean they were floppy and huge. She then put them through the washing machine and dryer, and voilà — or, viola! as I like to say when I’m feeling more musical — they came out soft, smooth and about a third of their original size.

The “felting” part comes because the washing and drying somehow blenderizes the knitted wool so that all stitches disappear. The resulting texture resembles a soft, felt hat. There will be no cold feet in the Cantwell cabin!IMG_2882 - Copy.JPGAfter washing and drying: felt slippers to keep feet cozy through the winter.

Another of her creative efforts has been a large batch of apple butter. An ancient, gnarled apple tree — probably a century old — near Center Island’s community clubhouse bears fruit that ripens to a glorious crimson blush in late fall. This year’s harvest was larger than usual, and islanders took turns picking apples to go into many a cobbler, brown betty and other delight. After others had their turn, so many apples remained unpicked that we decided action must be taken. We borrowed the community step ladder — an ungainly three-legged affair that towers about 12 feet high — and while Barbara steadfastly gripped the third leg I braved the teetering heights to fill a shopping bag. The result: many jars of locavore, Center Island apple butter, ready to remind us of autumn’s spicy bounty well into the darkest days of winter.

Happy December! cropped-1-anchor.jpg

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
December,
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
Paul Simon

Being thankful at The Nuthatch

P1230672.JPGNot everyone can pull off the fashion statement that is onion goggles: Daughter Lillian creates her famous onion gravy on Thanksgiving Day.

IMG_7955THANKSGIVING came easy this year. Our daughter, Lillian, and my brother Tom came for the holiday. We had a vegan feast and celebrated Tom’s retirement, which happened just last week.

At 66, my oldest brother had waited a few more years than I to eschew the daily grind. But like me, he’s going for a major change of scene. This week he moves from Portland, Oregon, to a small ranch near the Mexican border of Arizona, joining a new partner he met online. A big change for Tom, and maybe a challenge, but it sure won’t be boring.

Typically, we had a cold and very windy Thanksgiving, but — thank you weather gods — the power stayed on. (We all remember a turkey partially roasted on a Coleman stove at our parents’ place on Whidbey Island way back when.)

P1230676.JPGNo birds gave their lives for dinner at The Nuthatch this Thanksgiving.

Our feast included brilliant orange winter squash, from Horse Drawn Farm on Lopez Island, filled with a mix of wild rice and vegan sausage, along with a tray bake of beets, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots and garlic cloves. Tom brought a tasty cranberry jelly accented with pomegranate to supplement our usual cranberry-from-a-can (which Barbara insists is “art deco” style because of the ridges in the cranberry sauce). Lilly made her masterpiece onion gravy — the girl has the gift — to go atop mashed potatoes and a vat of sage-rich dressing. P1230669.JPGLilly also created her trademark pecan-pie-in-a-skillet for our Thanksgiving dessert.

She also baked a pretty pecan pie to go along with Barbara’s dark, rich, cardamom-laced pumpkin pie. I poured the wine (Washington chardonnay and Sonoma pinot noir), took pictures — and helped eat it all! (Burp.)

The day after Thanksgiving, Barbara packed us off with faux-turkey and dressing sandwiches, and Lil, Tom and I went for a delightful hike at Deception Pass State Park before I deposited them back at the bus station in Mount Vernon.P1230742.JPGThe day after Thanksgiving, Tom gets a dose of maritime beauty at Deception Pass before heading for the Arizona desert.

On the drive back to the Anacortes dock, I passed flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans, arriving in the Skagit Valley right on schedule. Honk if you love holiday time in the Pacific Northwest. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

Seeing stars (and nobody fell down)

IMG_2895.JPGWith my dopiest hat to keep me warm, it was a night to watch for the shooting stars of November.

IMG_7955YOU COULD SEE IT in their wide eyes. Our two cats thought we’d finally gone ’round the bend.

It was 1:45 Sunday morning — a sailor would call it O’Dark Thirty — and Barbara and I were bundled up, she in her warmest sweater, I in my Elmer Fudd hat, and heading out the door of the Nuthatch cabin.

Nothing was on fire. The house wasn’t flooded. Our bed was comfy as ever, yet we had set an alarm and climbed out from beneath the winter quilt many hours before breakfast. The kitties were miffed.

When a geezer such as myself tells someone he is seeing stars, the common questions are, “Did you slip on ice? Have you broken a hip? Got a concussion?”

No, this was the peak of the annual Leonids meteor shower, a night-sky phenomenon generated by Earth’s crossing of the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which is not known for its neatness. It leaves behind chunks of space debris that become blazing fireballs as they plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.

It happens every year around November 17 and 18, but you have to spend some time in a good dark place between midnight and dawn to see the show. For us, it was a serendipitous thing. Barbara saw an item about it online yesterday and told me the peak viewing time for our area would be at 1:52 a.m.

“Let’s get up and see it!” Barbara suggested.

I was all for it. Here we were, on a remote island with a dark, cloudless sky, newly retired and with plenty of opportunity to catch up on our sleep. This is what ditching the office is all about.

We’d walk up to the Center Island air field, about 300 feet through the woods behind our cabin, we agreed. That would give us a good wide view rather than peering up through the tall firs surrounding the Nuthatch. Before bedtime, we’d make a Thermos of something hot to drink on our adventure.

Leaving the cabin at the appointed hour, I wore a headlamp and Barbara toted a flashlight as we carried mugs of steaming apple cider to ward off the upper-30s cold. As we followed a path toward the grassy air field, I suddenly saw another light in the woods. Did a neighbor have the same idea? Were we not alone out in the dark?

The other light became two big dots of light, just a few inches apart, and shining just as intensely as my headlamp. That finally made sense as a deer’s face materialized out of the murk 20 feet away. In another moment the laser-like reflective eyes turned and the big animal clambered into the brush.

Breathe normally now, Brian.

Reaching the air field, we tilted our heads back and gasped at the heavenly, van Gogh-ish panorama of stars above, bound by a smeary ribbon of Milky Way light.

“Wow, look at Orion, you can even see his knees,” Barbara exclaimed. A little to the west, the seven stars of the Pleiades pulsed in and out — a bit like a deer appearing out of dark woods, then vanishing again.

Barbara saw the first shooting star. I missed it. This wasn’t a year for one of the meteor storms the Leonids occasionally bring. Witnesses to a 1966 Leonids storm over the southwestern United States reported up to 3,000 meteors per minute. An average year such as this brings a modest 10 to 15 per hour. But seeing even a few can be a treat.

The night was still and quiet until we heard a distant banshee cry. A coyote maybe? It came from the direction of Decatur Island. I didn’t know they had them. Might have been an odd owl. Just when you think you’re alone again.

“There!” I called out to Barbara as a light streaked low in the southern sky. “Another straight overhead,” we cried in unison. “And another!”

After 20 minutes, the cricks in our necks, the gradually penetrating cold and the emptiness of our cider mugs convinced us to call it a night. I’d seen four meteors and Barbara six.

As we turned back toward our cabin, the Big Dipper floated hugely above, pointing, as always, toward Polaris, the North Star, an old friend from our ocean-sailing days. A star to steer by is a comfort on a dark night, even if you’re just on your way back to bed.

“I’m so glad we did this!” Barbara said as we stepped back inside our cozy cabin. I heartily agreed.

The cats? They thought we were nuts. 1-anchor