Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Odd Couple goes West

(DrTom and Paul Sherman could have played the parts of Oscar and Felix naturally, and did.)

Paul Sherman and I were colleagues at Cornell University.  For several years, Paul and I drove the 2,200 miles from Ithaca, NY to the OX Ranch in western Idaho to conduct research on Idaho ground squirrels. We lived there for two months a year for most of the 1990s. Have you ever spent four days in a truck with Paul Sherman, followed by two months in a bunkhouse 30 miles from the nearest town (pop., about 600), followed by another four days in the truck to get home? Of course not, because your mama didn't raise no fool. Apparently, mine did.

On the trip out, Paul enjoyed working mentally on evolutionary problems---aloud.  Why do opossums play dead?  Why do humans nearly everywhere believe in some kind of a god?  Why do humans keep pets?  Paul liked to listen to Linda Ronstadt tapes in the truck; I liked to hear Jon Secada. He drove 55 mph; I drove 65. He liked to eat at McDonald's; I hated the place. I smoked; he hated that. He is fastidious, organized and neat; I'm not so much that way. He has a Type A personality, if you know what I mean; my type is yet undefined, but it can't be higher than a C.  And Sherm worried a lot more than I did about what other people thought.

When we arrived at the bunkhouse at the OX in March of the first year, I threw my jacket on the chair near the front door as we entered the old clapboard structure. Paul asked me if I was going to do something with that. I told him I intended to leave it there until May when we packed up to go back to New York.  And so it went for the next 55 days, and for the next eight years---Sherman as Felix Unger and I as Oscar Madison of the old tv series, The Odd Couple.

When friends or biologists visited our squirrel project, they invariably asked if we bickered like this all the time. No, we've cleaned up our act quite a bit for your visit. You should have heard us yesterday arguing about whether the kitchen floor needed mopping yet. And the day before that it was whether ketchup really needs to be kept in a refrigerator. Of course not, I said. But I repeatedly found it in there getting all cold as soon as I turned my back.  And Tony Randall worried whenever I left the Crock-Pot on all day. "Paul, it is a crock-pot. That's what it does. You cook slowly with it on ALL DAY." And tomorrow, we have to decide who drives the 30 miles to town to get groceries. And whose turn is it to call the ranch foreman and invite him and his wife for dinner?  "Tom, isn't that firewood a little close to the wood stove?" I started going to bed at 8pm so I could get some peace and quiet.  "Tom, did you brush your teeth before you went to bed?"  Judas Priest!!!!

One year we decided to take a more northerly route back to Ithaca.  We went through Montana.  At the end of a long day of traveling, we were ready to stop for the night.  We were both exhausted from a day of negotiating about the best route to take, which octane gas we should buy, and who gets to read the Missoulian first while the other drove.  I detected the unmistakable smell of testosterone as we hit the city limits of Bozeman; a few minutes later we discovered why.  We noticed that there were few vacancies at motels as we proceeded down the main drag.  We stopped at the only place that did not have a "No Vacancy" sign flashing.  That was the good news.  There was a rodeo in town, and nearly every room in town was taken.  The only room they had left was the honeymoon suite, the bad news.  I kid you not!  The friggin honeymoon suite.

The middle-aged woman behind the counter snickered and told me with as straight a face as she could summon that she would give us a discount.   The lobby was full of cowboys in western shirts, huge metal belt buckles with bighorn sheep and other animal heads on them, wide-brimmed hats curved up at the edges just right, and the obligatory boots with stiletto toes.  There was probably more testosterone per cubic foot in that motel at that moment than any place on earth.  "Lady, please keep your voice down.  We're considering this because we are dead tired, but let's not let this develop into a group decision between the university profs who study squirrels and have New York license plates and all these hombres who just rode in here on wild mustangs they only roped this morning on the open range."  Agreed.  But as we were walking away from the check-in desk she shouted: "Do you want flowers sent to the room?"  

Sherman and I accepted the deal, but we took a circuitous route to get to the room, and then waited until the hall cleared before we unlocked the door and slipped inside faster than a Google search can bring up the results for "lynch mob". The room was much nicer than the room my wife and I had stayed in on our wedding night 40 years earlier; there must be some kind of moral or life lesson in that fact, but I can't begin to figure out what it is.  The Bozeman room was so feminine, so flowery, so over-the-top nuptial that I blurred the memory of the place almost as soon as we checked out.  I do remember that there was a heart-shaped bed on a raised platform in the middle of the room and a pull-out couch.  Sherman and I flipped to see who got the bed.  He won the toss, or lost the toss, depending on your point of view.  We both agreed not to discuss the incident for at least 10 years.

Back in Ithaca, Sherman and I rarely spent any social time together.  An occasional email or phone call where the words "dickhead" and "whacko" were flung about was the extent of it.  Living together for two months a year pretty much exhausted what we had to say to one another.  During those years, we discussed every topic known to man, and we pretty much solved all the world's problems.  Professors in biology are often loners, so to live and work together closely for a significant period of time, far removed from your families and routine concerns, fosters a mutual dependency.  When it was all said and done, we were both wiser for the rare opportunity that comes with two adults jointly seeking answers to questions on a daily basis.  It takes a compromising spirit, but in the end it was all good, and life-long memories were made.  I still think that ketchup should be kept at room temperature, however.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The incredible cinnamon buns of Frank the cowboy

(Frank Anderson, my favorite cowboy and pastry chef, on his favorite quarter horse, Magic.)

Frank Anderson is a cowboy.  I mean, he is a real cowboy.  Frank and his family used to run cattle in the wide open landscape of eastern Oregon.  They were out on the range for weeks at a time, ate from a chuck wagon, punched cattle from horseback---the whole nine yards.  Years later, when his kids attended a proper school for the first time in their lives in Eugene, the teacher called Frank and his wife in for a conference.  She told them that their kids were great.  So what's the problem?  Well, they tell these unbelievable stories about living on the range like the cowboys of old.  The teacher quipped: "No one has lived like that for 100 years."  But Frank snapped back: "Mam.  That is exactly how we lived."

I got to know Frank while he was working for the OX Ranch near Council, Idaho.  For many years during the 1990s, Paul Sherman and I drove from Cornell to the OX where we conducted research on Idaho ground squirrels for two months every spring.  The OX was an operating cattle ranch with only a couple of full-time cowboys; with the well-trained cattle dogs they used, you just didn't need many men to keep those cattle from misbehaving.  Frank was in his 60s then, but he still mounted a horse early in the morning and didn't get off until evening.  Sometimes he had to sleep on the ground in the early spring cold, rather than take the time to come back to the house, if the herd was far away.  In the morning after those nights, he didn't walk completely upright.

Frank is built like most men would like to be built who were 40 years his junior.  Probably about 5'10" tall, 200 pounds, not an ounce of fat.  He sports a huge handlebar moustache, bushy eyebrows that he can raise so high they knock off his cowboy hat, and a flattop haircut.  He could easily pass for a Marine Corps drill instructor at Parris Island.  He is a horse whisperer and a dog whisperer.  He owns a team of four Belgians that he used to pull a wagon.  It is no small feat to control 8,000 pounds of horse with four independent brains, but Frank used to enter competitions with his "boys" where you did just that.  His son actually "breaks" horses for a living.  Once when Frank was driving fence posts into the ground he lost the tip of his index finger to the first joint.  He politely produced the severed finger from his pocket to the doctor when he finally got to the medical office.

But on Sundays, Frank transforms into something else.  He is usually home that day, and he bakes.  He made fantastic pies when we worked on the ranch.  One Sunday, I entered Frank's kitchen to find a plate of the most delicious-looking cinnamon buns you ever saw.  They were huge, tipping the scales at about half a pound each, oozing with cinnamon-flavored gooeyness, and warm.  In my entire pastry-consuming life, I never tasted a cinnamon bun that was that good, and I consider myself a cinnamon bun aficionado.  I was astonished at Frank's accomplishment, I ranted and raved about the creation, and I praised the cowboy profusely.  He nodded with pride and modest self-satisfaction.

My son Matt, who was working with me at the time, whispered to me that we need to trap squirrels in the location of Frank's house every Sunday, especially on the side of the house where Frank can see us through a large picture window, and that we should look hungry and in need of hot coffee.  We agreed that we would rehearse the forlorn look of a hungry squirrel biologist that very night back at our bunkhouse.  After a few Sundays, Sherman began to see the pattern, and accused us of planning our research schedule around the activities of the cowboy's kitchen.

When we returned to Ithaca, I told everyone about the cowboy's buns.  I bragged to my wife, I exclaimed to my department chairman, and I repeated the story of the Most Excellent Cinnamon Buns to my students and to anyone who would listen.  The following year we went back to the OX to study the wily ground squirrel.  On Sundays, I trapped near Frank's house.  I was hoping to score again.  Apple pie was good, but those buns.................  Had it all been just a wonderful dream?

And then one Sunday it happened.  Frank had cinnamon buns!  But wait.  They were good, but not great.  Was Frank slipping?  Had he lost the original recipe?  Had he changed ovens or mixers?  Was he using a metal spoon now instead of a wooden one?  And the following year, it was the same.  Good buns, but not great buns.

A few years after this, when our squirrel project was over, Frank visited my wife and I in Ithaca.  And then the truth came out.  The old cowboy confessed.  The wonderful cinnamon buns that I remembered were not Frank's.  He had purchased them at a local church bake sale a few days before.  When Matt and I went bonkers over how good they were, and how amazed we were that the cattle-puncher could produce such a thing, Frank took the credit.  The whole story took on a life of its own.  Frank heard us tell his foreman what great buns his employee made.  His culinary reputation throughout western Idaho was growing far and wide, as well as through the halls of the Ivy League back East.  Frank let the acclaim get the better of him, his head swelled to the size of a 10-gallon hat.  After that inaugural bun year, Frank knew that we would be expecting those pastries, so he learned how to make cinnamon buns in an attempt to create a seamless bun history.  The "good" buns were his.  The "great" buns came from the bake sale.  And he hoped we would not know the difference.  OMG!

After his confession, I thought I would never trust any cowboy I met again.  To be honest, I have not met another cowboy in the 15 years since this incident, but if I ever meet one, he will have to prove himself to me.  But then, I cogitated the facts of this case a bit longer and I realized something.  Frank knew we were counting on having cinnamon buns at his house on Sunday.  So he took the time to learn how to make them.  He realized he now had a bun reputation to uphold, and a man's reputation was worth fighting over.  In fact, where Frank comes from, men used to shoot each other over such things not so long ago.  So in the end, I thought--bravo Frank.  Well done.  May the memory of your buns live forever.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tanya, the Cujo of Rice Avenue

(Cujo, of Stephen King fame.  We lived with a dog about like this one.)

I have had dogs all my life.  I would estimate that I am currently on number 9 or 10.  My first dog was some black mutt named Tag, which we had when I was four or five years old.  My parents had to get rid of him because he refused to stop chasing Mrs. Mumaugh’s chickens.  Mumaugh was a neighbor lady who was a Native American.  We have taken enough away from them over the past three centuries, so the dog went.  My first and only poem (circa 1952) was written about this dog:
I once had a dog named Tag,
And when I would call him his tail would wag.

If any of you proceed to publish that poem, please send me the royalties when they start pouring in.

The most memorable dog we had was a Border Collie mix named Tanya.  My mother acquired this one when we lived on Rice Avenue sometime after my father died, and we had the dog through my high school and college days.  Everything went smoothly for the first few years.  Tanya wagged her tail; we petted her, fed her, and watered her.  We tossed a ball; she fetched it.  She slept, she ate, she urinated and defecated, and she occasionally barked.  We provided food and shelter; she provided some company.  How complicated a contract do we need to devise? 

But then the problem started.  My mother always fed Gaines-Burgers to Tanya, which was a dog food that looked like a raw hamburger and came wrapped in individual plastic packages.  The production of this dog food ceased in the 1990s.  At first, Tanya would gobble up the burger as soon as she was given one.  But as she got older, she carried the meaty disc to a corner of the living room where she laid down with the prize like it was her baby, and she would threaten anyone who entered her personal space.  She actually bared her teeth and growled menacingly, and if you got even closer, she would snap at you.  I never wrote a poem about this dog, so maybe that omission planted some seed of insecurity in that puny Collie brain.

One day we hit a tipping point.  You see, Tanya would guard her burger for a couple of hours and look around the room to see if anyone was even watching her.  If you were, she bared her fangs.  (It was similar to my younger brother Jack, who hated it if you looked at him over the breakfast table in the morning while he ate his cereal.  He actually uttered a sort of a growl and bared his teeth, before he developed the habit of lining up all the cereal boxes in a semi-circle in front of him so he could not be seen at all.  Recently, Jack told me he was simply lining up those boxes so he could read the nutritional information.  Right!  I'm sure he couldn't even pronounce "riboflavin" at that age.)

But on one occasion, I got so angry about Tanya hoarding her food and holding the family hostage until she finished, that I got right in her face, pointed my finger at her, and screamed “Tanya, eat it!”  She snapped.  Tanya sprang to her feet and came at me with jaws and saliva flying and a growl that gives me cold sweats to this day.  I thought she was going to rip my JC Penney’s Towncraft briefs right off my body.  (It must have been a Saturday, because my brothers and I always spent the morning watching tv in our underwear.  In the weeks that followed this incident, we actually sat on the couch under a heavy blanket to protect us in case Tanya decided to attack.  We refused to give up the Saturday underwear thingie.)

Tanya’s weirdness provided my brothers and I with entertainment, however.  Whenever a new friend came over to the house, and they asked about the dog, we would tell them what Tanya liked the best.  “Just point your finger at her and say eat it.”  The reaction of the dog and the guest were quite amazing.  Many of these friends never returned.

I hated coming home to visit after I went off to Ohio State, because my mother would beg me to take Tanya to the vet for one thing or another.  No one else could even get her in the car without being attacked.  I think I may have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) years later, and it wasn't from my military service. One time, I took her to a husband and wife vet office in a nearby town to get Tanya’s nails clipped.  I think we had become persona non grata with all the local vets.  Somehow I got her into the office on her leash, and explained to the naïve vets what we needed.  I told them to be really careful with this dog; they would probably have to put her to sleep to do anything with her, I advised.  Advice not taken, apparently.  The next day when I returned to fetch the dog, the husband vet had his right arm wrapped in a fresh bandage, and his wife had her left arm wrapped in a matching arrangement.  “Yep, she got us both”, he volunteered.

There was one other personality in the mix---my blind grandmother.  My grandma had lived with us for years, and she was totally without sight.  The interesting thing was that Tanya often lay at her feet with one of those damn burgers, unbeknown to my grandmother.  When she moved her feet or began to rock in the chair, Tanya would start to bare her teeth and look threatening.  But Tanya never took it any further than that with the old woman who always thought that the snarky dog was as sweet as sugar.  Sometimes, what you don’t know, or can’t see, can’t hurt you.

Why my mother kept this menace so long after the dog went quirky is a mystery to me.  Perhaps it had something to do with wanting life to remain the same as it had been.  It was changing in our house.  I had left home already, and my brothers were not far behind.  Soon, our mother would be left alone with her invalid mother.  And Tanya would at least be there to keep them company, flaws and all.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A memorable New Year’s Eve in Mexico

(Folklorico dancers in Mexico.   What a party.)

About 20 years ago, my wife and I and our 8-year old son decided to spend the holidays in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  We did most of the usual things one does there.  We visited the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, went skin-diving in the Caribbean, sun-bathed on the beaches at Cancun, and spent a couple of days on Cozumel Island. 

But on New Year’s Eve we found ourselves in the provincial capital, Merida.  We stayed in an old hotel, the name of which has now passed into the mist like the smell of tequila after a festive occasion.  When we checked in, we realized that they were setting up for their New Year’s Eve party later that night.  We asked if we could attend, and the desk clerk uttered a chipper “seguro”.  All he needed to know was the kind of alcohol we wanted at the table, so I said tequila and my wife said rum.

When we were escorted to our table later that night, we found an entire bottle of rum and a bottle of tequila on the table, as we had apparently ordered.  Ay, caramba!  Our 8-year old might have to help us with this, because I refuse to leave food or drink behind at the end of an evening out.

The festivities that night resulted in the most memorable New Year’s Eve we have ever experienced in 42 years of marriage.  There were choruses of dancing girls in colorful dresses performing a folklórico, there were bands of several styles, and a buffet of food the likes of which I have never seen.  And it went on and on and on.  Our son found young friends to hang out with around the swimming pool, so he was occupied, and we were happy, and getting “happier” by the hour.

Needless to say, the following morning my wife and I were moving and thinking very slowly.  The desk clerk kept asking me for “la llave” as I was checking out and, for the life of me, I could not understand what he was saying.  My wife acted embarrassed and yelled indignantly “The key.  He wants the key!”  Oh, of course.  I handed the young guy the key and sheepishly scooted out of the lobby to the waiting taxi.

As we meandered down the narrow streets in the cab, my wife perused the signs on the buildings as we passed.  My head hurt too much to look out into the bright light of day.  As we passed one respectable looking edifice, and because my Spanish was normally better than hers, she asked me what “Y—M—C—A” spelled.  I looked as superior as I could muster, stared her squarely in the face, and told her it spelled YMCA.  Touché! 

Several morals to this story, but here is the take-home message for me.  Drink bottled water, and don’t mix alcohol and the alphabet when traveling in Mexico.

 Article first published as A Memorable New Year's Eve in Mexico on Technorati.