What Happened to Phil and Bob’s Early Spring?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 7, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

The month of March has brought winter back to us in spite of the fact that both Punxsutawney Phil and Bee Cave Bob did not see their shadows in February, an omen indicating an early Spring. Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, seeing or not seeing his shadow in Pennsylvania has been an American tradition for 120 years and has this year predicted an early Spring. Realizing Pennsylvania weather and Texas weather were drastically different phenomena, Texans began their own separate tradition with Bee Cave Bob, the armadillo living near Austin, making that determination for the Lone Star State.

            So, if neither Phil nor Bob see their shadow, by March, an early Spring should be here! Not so! Obviously! It’s not surprising, however, because, according to the Groundhog Club, Phil has made his prediction for an early Spring 19 times since 1887, and 103 forecasts for more winter, and has been wrong 61% of the time. I don’t know the stats for Bob, but he got it wrong for Texas this year too.

            As I am writing this, a freeze warning has been issued by Wharton County for tomorrow morning, forecasting a low of 30 degrees, even lower in other parts of Texas; it is snowing in New York, where tomorrow’s lows are predicted to be a single digit and it is sleeting right now in Dime Box, Texas. The Midwest is being hit with more snow and ice and the forecast of another Arctic front following on the heels of this one. Currently, it is 9 degrees in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, and 15 in Illinois. When you read this, later in the week, it should still be very cold (if the weather forecasters are more trustworthy than Phil and Bob).

            One of the advantages of being old is that you have seen early Springs, late Springs, extreme weather patterns of all sorts, before, so nothing surprises you. I can remember when I was a child, and we would have sleet many times during a particular winter, some of the younger adults would be convinced that the world was experiencing the beginnings of a New Ice Age But my wise old grandfather would say, “No, you should have seen the sleet storms we had when I was a kid! This is nothing compared to that!” With Australia’s severe drought and extremely high temperatures this year, many were ascribing such a dryer-and-hotter-than-usual phenomenon to Global Warming. Maybe. Maybe not.

            Over the numerous years I have lived, I have seen a lot of Early Spring/Late Spring weather patterns, some here in Texas, others elsewhere. I remember walking in the snow to church on Easter Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and looking at chunks of ice still in the creeks in June. I remember attending a convention in Ft. Collins, Colorado, in early April, and huge patches of snow where still on the ground. I remember driving in a blizzard on a highway in Ontario, Canada, on Thanksgiving Day, with locals saying, “It never snows in November!” I remember a winter so cold in Dime Box, Texas, that almost everybody’s water pipes burst, even those covered and the water turned off. I remember being in Mequon, Wisconsin in mid-summer, with the temperature 104 degrees and no air-conditioning (“Oh, it never gets hot in Wisconsin!”).

            Although, when you get old and nothing about the weather surprises you any more, you still hate those years when there are extremes, such as multiple hurricanes and repeated floodings, all in one season. Life-threatening events are terrifying and often end with tragedies, such as the horrendous tornadoes which hit Alabama, Georgia, and Florida yesterday. These unexpected storms were more devastating than the ice storms.

            It’s a given that sometimes weather predictions turn out to be right, and sometimes they don’t. I am writing this on Monday, and you will read it on Thursday; and no matter what the weathermen and Phil and Bob say, we live in Texas, and who knows what it will really be like in three days.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

The Need For Basic Geography

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 28, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

     For someone who has always hated to travel, it’s rather odd that not only did I travel quite a bit in my lifetime, but also that geography was my favorite subject in elementary school.

            Think about it. Here’s a kid attending Dime Box Rural Elementary School, who, in the fourth grade, had never traveled outside Lee County, Texas, except to Caldwell, which was just across the County Line from Dime Box. But because of the enthusiasm of my teacher, I loved geography and thought learning about the many places in the world to be totally exciting.

            Drawing, coloring, and labeling maps were more fun to me than diagramming sentences in my English class, and I loved diagramming! In the geography class, we learned to draw the continents and to identify the countries and major cities within each continent. Strange as it may now seem, my favorite continent to draw, color, and label was South America. Since age 8, I have known where countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, etc., were located, and could quickly find them on a map.

            So, it sort of surprised me when I taught English literature that high school and college kids did not know where London was located, or, for that matter, England. Perhaps, in the 1940’s, we were more interested in where places were located, because we were in the middle of World War II, and London was bombed, and, later, cities in Germany were bombed. My mother bought a globe, and we would look up these cities and countries on the globe, both at school and at home.

            There have been a number of countries in the news lately, — China, North Korea, Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico, to mention a few. As I am writing this, the situation in Venezuela is very volatile and dangerous; the country seems to be on the verge of a civil war. People are hungry, and the President of Venezuela is not allowing humanitarian aid to be brought across the border from Columbia, resulting in confrontation and violence. He has severed diplomatic relations with Brazil which also borders Venezuela. The Vice President of the United States is flying to Columbia to meet with South American leaders.

            Because what happens in Venezuela has an effect on the rest of the world, us included, we need to know where it is. Because of studying geography in the fourth grade, I know where Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil are located. When Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, was elected Pope, I knew where Argentina was. When I learned that some of the greatest poets today writing in the Spanish language were from Chile, I knew where Chile was.

            We Americans worry a great deal about our children’s proficiency in math, science, and language arts, and those fields of study are indeed important; but we should also encourage our young people to study geography. Most people cannot afford to learn geography by actually traveling to many places, but anybody can afford to study maps as we did in the fourth grade.

            When large numbers of folks from Honduras travel to the Southern border of our country, because they want to live here and work here, it is reasonable to want to know where Honduras is. No, it doesn’t border Venezuela, because it’s not in South America, but in Central America, which is part of the continent of North America. Of all the countries in our hemisphere, we Texans probably know the geography of our neighbor, Mexico, the best, and have traveled to many Mexican towns and cities over the years, may even have relatives living there. What happens in Mexico can greatly affect us in Texas, both good things and bad things. My purpose in writing this is not political, it is not to argue for or against the Wall between us and Mexico, but to stress the need for knowing geography.

            As I said, we truly need math, science and language arts to even survive in the world today, but, as life becomes more and more international on this planet, we need also to know basic geography.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Theremin: Strings Without Strings

Just as some folks channel surf on television, I “group-post search” on my computer and/or iPad. What I mean by that is this: After joining a number of very meaningful (to me) groups on Facebook, — such as “Thriving Christian Artists,” “League of Texas Writers,” “Texas Wendish Society,” etc., — I “surf” through these every day to see what new suggestions, videos, and words of wisdom they have to offer. Last night the Wendish Society group live-streamed a concert given by the Apollo Chamber Players, in performance at the University of Houston at Clear Lake.

            The Texas Wendish Society’s interest in the performance was due to the group’s guest musician, Carolina Eyck, a Wend (Sorb) from Germany who played the “theremin.” The theremin is an electronic instrument that was invented in the 1920’s by the Russian inventor, Leon Theremin (for whom the device was named), and it is known in America mainly for its use by the Beach Boys in 1966, the Rolling Stones in 1967, and other groups, including the Led Zeppelin. Before watching last night’s live-streamed performance, I had never heard of it before.

            As I watched and listened, it sounded to me like the sound of a large stringed instrument being played with a bow, but as I watched Carolina, I saw that she moved her hands somewhat as though playing a harp, but only in pantomime! She touched no strings, held no bow, no instrument was visible; she strummed the air with her hands. Weird! So I quickly googled “theremin,” and discovered what this mysterious “thing” was that my fellow Wend/Sorb was playing.

            The theremin is an electronic instrument controlled without physical contact by the musician. The electronic device emits frequency and amplitude, which are controlled by the hands of the musician, using one hand for frequency and the other hand for volume. Carolina Eyck said in an interview she has heard electronic music since she was a baby, backstage listening to her parents’ band. She fell in love with the theremin which she said involved a performer making music in the air by controlling two electronic fields with his/her hand. She began playing the theremin when she was seven years old.

            No instrument has ever fascinated me more than this one. Since my wife plays the autoharp, I am familiar with, and love the sounds, it makes by the musician strumming or plucking the strings. And as a fan of British Romantic poetry, I am very familiar with the mythical instrument, called an “aeolian harp,” which poets described as a stringed instrument, its strings so sensitive, the wind blowing across them plays heavenly music. They were said to have been mounted in trees, — sounds a little bit like wind chimes, except there is no hitting together of metal or glass objects, just the wind strumming and bowing the strings. That’s the closest thing to a theremin I had ever heard of.

            Carolina Eyck was accompanied by the Apollo Chamber Players who played on traditional stringed instruments with real strings they strummed, bowed or plucked. But the musical sounds produced by her instrument were so hauntingly ethereal, it was a mesmerizing experience for the audience. It made me think of the haunting beauty of Lusatia in Germany and the Spree River, as well as the mysterious fairytales and folk lore of the Wendish (Sorbian) people.

            I’m not suggesting that the music of the theremin is Wendish music, because the Wends were famous for their music long before the theremin was invented (though it was invented by a Slav). The early Wends played a type of violin which predated modern violins and they also had bagpipes, very similar to those in Scotland. In later years, they added brass instruments.

            Many musicians believe that Carolina Eyck is the greatest theremin player in the world today. While there aren’t huge numbers of people playing the instrument, it does not seem easy to play, and she is awesome. If you have a chance to see her perform, or watch her on video, I recommend you do so.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com.

Happy Heart Day To All Of You

            Recently an Associated Press Release about “Sweethearts” caught my attention and caused me to reminisce about celebrating Valentine’s Day in the days of my childhood. According to the AP release, Necco, which had been making the little captioned candy hearts called “Sweethearts” since 1886 (my childhood doesn’t go quite that far back), filed for bankruptcy protection and went out of business last July; consequently, it was announced there would be no Necco candy hearts for sale this Valentine’s. Although Spangler Candy Company bought out Necco, Spangler observed that they would not have Sweethearts on the shelves again until 2020.

            There are a couple other candy companies, including Brach’s, that have been making candy hearts which seem similar to Necco’s but aren’t the ones we loved as kids, and of course those were on the shelves this week.

            Thinking about the candy hearts and Valentines we bought and exchanged at Dime Box Rural School and the demise of Sweethearts got me to reminiscing about why we bought and made heart-shaped objects on Valentine’s Day in the first place. Why not give stars or diamond-shapes? This heart symbol developed above and beyond the many legends of the several Saint Valentines history and legend record.

            The Book of the Heart by Eric Jager explores the symbolism of the heart and its relationship to love, both romantic and altruistic. The shape of a heart as we know it today became a symbol of love during the Medieval Era, when it was believed that the human heart was literally the center of our emotions, love, of course being only one of the emotions. The actual hearts of birds and some other animals look more like a Valentine heart than the human heart does. Since it was against the law to dissect a human being in the Middle Ages, people knew only what animal hearts looked like.

            Cupid, or Eros, was the Greek god of love, and so some of the earliest Medieval Valentines depicted Cupid throwing arrows, roses, and hearts at lovers. Romantic love became the focus of Valentine’s Day celebrations at first, in spite of the fact the Saints who were named “Valentine” embodied agape, or Christian, love.

            When we exchanged Valentines in Elementary School, we exchanged them with all our friends, boys and girls. We used to draw and color our own Valentines in the third and fourth grades, and in our silliness, we would write verses on them like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, if I had a brick, I’d throw it at you.” By the time we started feeling “romantic” about the opposite sex, we were considered too old to exchange Valentines in school.

            Today, we send Valentines to folks we really care about, from grandparents to parents to teachers to best friends, no longer considering them messages of just romantic love, but all kinds of love that touch our lives. And out of this has grown the use of many, many expressions we hardly even think about when we say them. We describe a neighbor as “warm-hearted,” a friend as “kind-hearted,” a bully as “mean-hearted,” someone who is extremely aloof as “cold-hearted,’ a coward as “weak-hearted,” etc.

            I found myself saying of someone the other day, “She has a really good heart.” I remember as a college student, we had excessively hard professors whom we described as “having hearts of stone.” I’ve heard people say things like, “She’s as dumb as they come, but she has a warm heart.” The heart is one of the most important symbols in our life.

            A most touching use of this symbol happened recently, and it is so moving I think it’s worth sharing. We have a member of our church who is deaf, a young boy who has been a member since I baptized him as a baby. My wife has been his Sunday School teacher for a long time. This past Sunday, he was communicating with a deaf interpreter visiting our church, and he signed to her that his Sunday School teacher (my wife) had a “happy heart.” We thought it was one of the best compliments she had ever been paid.

            Happy Heart Day to all of you!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

            This time of year, high school seniors begin to realize they are on the downhill slope of their senior year, — actually of their high school education. Some are already taking senior pictures, and at least one area school has just had their “Seniors Serve Night.” It’s an exciting, and, even, fun time, except for a nagging feeling they must study for SAT-type tests and look at potential colleges and plan entrance strategies, and maybe even decide on what to major in.

            My advice to my daughters when they became seniors was not to let the Big Change ahead spoil the fun of their senior year. Do both, — plan and have fun.

            When I look back at my own life, and think about my plans after high school graduation, I shudder, because I had no idea of “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Ideas came, and ideas went. Plans came and plans went. Lots of them.

            Having attended Dime Box Rural School through the Ninth Grade, I finished high school at Giddings High when we moved to the “big city.” Both sets of my grandparents were small cotton farmers in Dime Box, and, because I helped them chop and pick cotton, I knew how hard you had to work when farming was your vocation, and I ruled out farming as a career choice early on. Yet, because I loved country life and the freedom of farm life, tractors and barns and great cooking that only farmers’ wives can do, I felt tinges of maybe I should consider such a life.

            My father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and, even as a child I realized he worked as hard, or harder, than most farmers. Ruled out working on the railroad as a career right off the bat!

            My parents hoped my brother and I could go to college, if somehow we could carry it off financially, but I was unsure about that choice. I used to watch an old “shoe cobbler,” as we called him, in his shoe repair shop in Old Dime Box, put new soles and heels on shoes and work with all kinds of interesting leathers, and I rather liked the idea of someday having my own shoe shop. Indoors all day, never having to work in the blazing sun! And I loved the smell of freshly cut leather! Certainly beat the smell of cow manure and pig pens!

            My mother’s cousin was the Superintendent of Dime Box Rural School, and I thought I might like his job a lot, because all I ever saw him do each day was to come out on the wooden porch of his office and hit a large iron triangle with a hammer, signaling the end of each class period. But decided that would get boring after a while.

            The Giddings News was my favorite place in Giddings, and, when I was a high school junior or senior, I used to stand outside the large front window and watch the owner/editor run those huge antique printing presses, with newspapers flipping out fully printed. Eventually, I got brave enough to go inside, and I liked everything about the place, from Underwood typewriters clacking away to the louder clacking of the presses, and the newsroom smell, — I guess it was the smell of printer’s ink. As Feature Editor of the high school newspaper, I decided the newspaper business was the career for me!

            Of course, college and career ideas and plans changed by the month. My mother, being an incredibly gifted musician herself, wanted me to become a Band Director, so, in spite of zero musical talent, I gave that a great deal of thought. My maternal grandfather, an Elder in the church, hoped I would become a Lutheran pastor, and I entertained that idea until I found out how many years of college and seminary were required and how much that would cost.

            One of my great loves was drawing cartoons, using newspaper comic strips and comic books as my models. Still wanting to be a cartoonist my junior year in high school, I became Art Editor of the high school newspaper, and had to draw and gouge cartoons out of linoleum blocks.

            Of the two things I did for the newspaper, I found writing feature stories more personally satisfying than cartooning. In all the back and forth wishy-washiness of my career plans, I always came back to writing.

            So, I’m of the belief God gave each of us talents and abilities, and He presents ways for us to discover them, — and ultimately to zero in on the ones to be used in a lifetime career. A good reason to relax and enjoy your senior year.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

Time To Look At Seed And Bulb Catalogs And Plan A Garden

            As we move into February, even with more cold weather in the forecast, many folks in rural Texas start looking at seed catalogs, bulb catalogs, and garden supply advertisements. Having been reared by parents who loved and poured over seed catalogs, I still feel a twinge of nostalgia every time I see a seed catalog or a Farmers’ Almanac.

            Old timers, like my parents, had many superstitions about when to plant, along with strong “only way” opinions. To them, two Presidents’ birthdays were time to plant certain seeds or bulbs, George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s, both in February. These were “must plant” days, and you planted those white (Irish) potatoes on Washington’s birthday even if there was sleet covering the ground. My maternal grandfather had great faith in the Old Farmers’ Almanac telling you what to plant when; next to the Bible, it was his favorite book.

            In those days after the Great Depression, nobody had any money, and especially if you lived in small, rural towns like Dime Box. However, the advantage we had over city folks is that even with empty pocket books, we had lots to eat, — we grew the fruit, nuts and vegetables and raised the meat and dairy. One of the fondest memories I have of growing up is having an abundance of delicious food to eat, almost none of it store-bought.

            What we ate is what we grew, and by “we,” I mean our extended family which included aunts and uncles, grandparents, and older cousins. For example, my grandparents had wild peach trees which bore much fruit, so that’s where we got our peaches. My parents had fig trees, so the rest of the family would get their figs from us. My family thought that eating pears was tantamount to taking laxatives, so no one bothered to have pear trees. However, our neighbors had pear trees and kept us supplied with what we didn’t want. Blackberries and mustang grapes grew wild in the wooded areas and were plentiful in season. Most aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc., had a cow and chickens, so there was always an over-abundance of eggs, milk, cheese, and butter. The unpolluted creeks around Dime Box were teeming with fish, and I don’t remember my parents ever buying fish in my life.

            One of my uncles raised sweet potatoes on a couple of acres of sandy land, which the old-timers said was the only kind of soil this root vegetable would grow in. My uncle’s huge yearly harvest of sweet potatoes made our family happy, because we all loved this root vegetable, and we even made “German potato salad” (which is normally made with white potatoes) out of it. We didn’t know in those years that the sweet potato (which belongs to the morning glory family) was healthier than the white potato (which belongs to the nightshade family), we just ate it because it tasted so good!  

            Although my parents planted their white seed potatoes on George Washington’s birthday, the earliest you can plant sweet potatoes in Texas is April, as they are very sensitive to frost and won’t germinate until the ground has warmth, — no planting sweet potatoes with sleet on the ground! But we left that up to my uncle who grew them.

            Some folks then and now referred/refer to “sweet potatoes” as “yams,” but the two are actually not the same. This confusion came about at some point in time when stores started referring to soft sweet potatoes as “yams” and hard sweet potatoes as “sweet potatoes.” In actuality, true “yams” and “sweet potatoes” differ in color, texture, and nutrition, the sweet potato being the more nutritious of the two. If you think you see a sweet potato whose inside is any color other than orange, it’s a yam. I used to think yams were albino sweet potatoes until I saw a purple one! They can be white, cream-colored, purple, brown, or even a yellowish-orange.

            The first day of Spring is March 20, 2019, so if February is here, March won’t be far behind; consequently, it’s time to start flipping through seed catalogs, sharpening your garden tools, and keeping an eye out for baskets of white seed potatoes in the country stores.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

Songs Of The Moon

            Sunday night is usually the time I start thinking about my newspaper column which I normally send to the Editor on Monday or Tuesday, and it appears in the paper on Thursday. Occasionally, I start and finish my column on Sunday night. We’ll see what happens tonight, so come on along with me and we’ll see.

            My wife, the science teacher, and I, the poet, have been talking about the phenomenon occurring tonight (Sunday) called by the Media, the “Super Blood Wolf Moon.” Some call it simply the “Blood Red Moon,” the “Brick Red Moon,” or the “Blood Moon.” Some of those terms make you think of eerie stories about vampires, so it might be necessary to look at this thing more analytically.

            As a poet, I think of all the many poems and songs written about the moon over the years. Since poets first began writing lyrics for songs, there have been over 150 lyrics written about the moon, some describing its color like this: “Blue Moon” by Sam Cooke, “Pink Moon” by Neil Young, “Silver Moons” by Sunset Rubdown, “Black Moon” by Deftones, “Orange Moon” by Erykah Badu, “Grapefruit Moon” by Tom Waits, and “When My Moon Turns to Gold Again,” Elvis Presley. I couldn’t find any that talked about a Blood Red Moon, — I guess “Orange Moon” was the closest.

            Frank Sinatra gave us “Fly Me to the Moon,” and Thin Lizzy gave us “Dancin’ in the Moonlight,” and Pink Floyd called one of his album’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

There have been many famous poems (distinct from songs) written about the moon, in fact, some of the most memorable poems ever. Indeed, poets over the years have gotten a lot of mileage out of the moon!

            One of the most famous “moon poems” is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To the Moon,” as he speaks of the moon’s pallor resulting from climbing the sky alone and looking down at the earth. My favorite “moon poem” is Emily Dickinson’s “The Moon was but a chin of gold,” – what an incredible metaphor for a crescent moon, a moon that then changes to full face with amber lips, and her shoe is the universe. A couple other “moon poems” are Carl Sandburg’s “Moonset” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Moonrise.” I prefer the poems to the songs.

            The Houston Chronicle, KHOU, and many other Houston public communicators have been providing us with instructions on how and when to watch tonight’s moon in Houston. My wife, who plans to watch the celestial event, which is essentially an eclipse, later tonight, explained the phenomenon to me, saying that when the moon is in total eclipse, it appears reddish in color, because it is illuminated by sunlight refracted by the earth’s atmosphere.

            That explained why it’s called a “blood” moon, but I continued to wonder why this strange event was called by the Media, a “Super Blood Wolf Moon.” KHOU came to my rescue by posting this: SUPER – because a super moon happens when a full moon coincides with the point at which the moon is closest to earth; BLOOD – just a description of its reddish color; WOLF – January and February are known as the wolf-moon months, because it is mating season for wolves and the reason they howl at the moon.

            Thus far, the wife has been watching the full moon rise from the kitchen window. She had me take a look, and, of course, it hasn’t turned red yet. She has her itinerary planned for later. She will drive down to the end of the block at 9:30 p.m., to watch the starting of the umbra (reddening) at 9:33 p.m. Then, she hopes to be in full eyesight of the moon at 10:40 p.m., to observe the beginning of the total eclipse at 10:41 p.m. I hope she takes a flashlight for the maximum eclipse at 11:12 p.m. By midnight, it’s all over.

            I’m not sure how this column will end, because when she returns to the house it will be midnight, and I will probably be asleep, so let’s shut it down now.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com.

Bake With It Or Brush With It

            A subject for discussion tonight between my wife and me at the dinner table was toothpaste. The toothpaste I ordered online was about a week late in coming, and I assured my wife I could brush with another kind of toothpaste until it comes. But what if it doesn’t? This led us down many rabbit trails, and what began as small talk about toothpaste ended up as an analysis and investigation of baking bread and what causes dough to rise.

            Can you bake bread without yeast? Yes! What can you use if you don’t use yeast? Baking soda and lemon juice! And so on.

            Before I get into the culinary arts part of our discussion, let me begin with the dental hygiene part.

            When my parents were growing up, they brushed their teeth with baking soda (so they told me), because that’s what many families in those days brushed with. After my parents were married, they switched to Pepsodent or Colgate tooth POWDER, no doubt because they thought these popular toothpowders were flavored versions of baking powder, — but they weren’t. Toothpowder in those days was made from ground up chalk plus a detergent plus sweetening or flavoring.

            Many professionals who research such things believe baking soda right out of the kitchen cabinet is the best tooth cleaner. Contrary to what most people think, plain ole baking soda is actually less abrasive than any toothpaste on the market, so its advocates say. I have a hunch that ground up chalk is rather abrasive. My grandparents brushed with baking soda for as long as they lived. My mother would see-saw between Pepsodent or Colgate powder and baking soda, not knowing there was no baking soda in the toothpowder.

            So I grew up with a great deal of respect for baking soda, though I did not particularly like the taste of it, and didn’t use it. However, in fairly recent years, Arm and Hammer Baking Soda came out with an Arm-and-Hammer baking soda toothpaste, and I got on that band wagon right away, using it until I developed tooth sensitivity (from old age, not from the toothpaste). I was happy to discover that Arm and Hammer also now makes a toothpaste for sensitive teeth, — and it’s the toothpaste that’s a week late in arriving, — and triggered this whole discussion.

            Now for the culinary arts part of our discussion.

            It began with my wondering out loud if a person could bake bread using either baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast. Before we could pursue that question, we both wondered what the difference was between baking SODA and baking POWDER. So we googled it. Yes, iPhones and iPads are allowed at the dinner table.

            It amazed me to discover that baking powder contains baking soda, so, yes, they are similar. I also discovered that yeast, baking soda, and baking powder are all “leavening” agents used in baking. And, yes, baking soda can be used as a substitute for yeast in baking bread if you add an acid, such as lemon juice or milk with vinegar to the mixture. Wow! Who would have thought?!

            As a former biology teacher, my wife knew all about “yeast,” but I googled it anyway. She wasn’t, but I was, startled to discover that yeast belonged to a taxonomic group called “fungi,” because I am allergic to penicillin, mushrooms, and most other fungi. Good grief, am I also allergic to yeast?

            As a biologist, the wife knew yeast was a single-cell organism which multiples when fed with sugar, and the sugar causes the fungus to ferment.

            Since we buy our yeast at the grocery store, it was enlightening to learn you can make yeast from mashed potatoes or from flour and water, because most plant life contains naturally occurring yeast.

            One of these days my Arm and Hammer toothpaste for sensitive teeth will arrive, and one of these days, if my wife allows me to use her bread-making machine, I will make a loaf of bread using baking soda and lemon juice instead of yeast. Just for the heck of it!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

What Can You Expect From An Old Man And A Cat?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger appeared first in IMAGES for January 10, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            There is something mesmerizing about a cat sleeping on your lap on a sunny winter afternoon.  You feel that you and he both need to be out in the bright winter sunlight soaking up some Vitamin D, but these lazy, after-New-Year’s days make you both drowsy-frowsy.  The bite-size birds chirping outside the patio door don’t call Gatsby to the hunt, and watching my neighbor rake leaves doesn’t call me outside to the tool shed either.

            It has all the makings of a long winter nap, and Santa Claus has already come.  What can you expect from an old man and an old cat who have grown old together!

            Like most older cats, Gatsby has stopped grooming himself as thoroughly as he used to, so sometimes he smells a bit musty.  May be the same reason some elderly folks bathe only twice a week.  He looks healthy, got a good report from the Vet a couple days ago, and eats as much as a teenage football player.

            But a smelly cat on your lap can interfere with an afternoon nap, and if I wanted a smelly pet, I’d get a dog.

            From the very beginning when we acquired Gatsby during a hurricane, there was something unusual about him.  His being black is not that unusual, and I’m certainly not superstitious about black cats.  There are plenty black cats in the world, but it is a fact that more of them are males than females (not sure why).  The old Medieval superstition about witches turning themselves into black cats is just silly folklore, but makes the black cat a Halloween symbol.

            Still, from the beginning, Gatsby seemed odd, different from all the past cats that lived with us.  He was/is a large black feline with a glossy black coat and yellow eyes, causing me to wonder when we got him if he were half panther.

            The second day we had him, he angrily leaped at me when I pushed him away from me with my walking cane.  He would cuddle with you as long as you did what he liked, but a wrong move could trigger his anger.  Over a period of time, he bit me on the chin twice, both deep bites, and clawing us was commonplace.  He chased and killed not only birds and lizards, but also squirrels, — I had never before seen a cat with such speed and such hunting skills.

            More and more, I was convinced he was part wild panther.  One of our friends called him a “devil cat,” and she wouldn’t go near him.  Other people, however, would just say, “Aw, he’s just a cat!”

            A little research on my part revealed that he was neither a panther nor part-panther.  My research showed there are 19 breeds which can produce black cats, and one of those is the Bombay Cat.  His glossy black fur and yellow eyes are a giveaway that he is a Bombay.

            Further research found that Nikki Horner, a cat breeder, created the first Bombay cat in the late 1950’s.  Horner’s objective in developing this breed was to create a miniature “panther” with glossy black fur and yellow eyes.  She succeeded only too well.

            My wife and I came to love Gatsby, and he, us, though there were times when I was ready to send him back to where he came from.

            And he did have a “wimpy” side, too.  He was terrified of thunder and lightning and would hide under the couch during a thunder storm (and still does).  He was and is even more terrified of dogs, and when any stray dog got into our backyard, he was traumatized and would disappear for the rest of the day.  He loved to be cuddled and wanted to be stroked constantly, but always on his terms.

            Now that he is an old cat with failing eyesight and a slower running speed, he has mellowed even more, and like most old codgers, felines or homo sapiens, he has become more lovable.  We will continue to grow old together.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

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Not Over! Three More Days Of Christmas Remain

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 3, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Although most Americans and Brits seem to think Christmas begins in late November, it doesn’t. It begins on December 25 and lasts through the evening of January 5, — so dear readers, please know that it’s still Christmas!

            Of course, Christmas has become so secularized in the 21st Century that some folks even forget the season had religious origins. The official date of the birth of Jesus was designated by the Church as December 25, marking the beginning of the Festival of Christmas, with the Coming of the Wise Men designating the end of the Festival (and the beginning of Epiphany). Christmas was a joyful celebration, thus each of the twelve days of the Festival were observed with special festivities, the royal families in Europe setting the traditions.

            In England, until the Puritan Revolt, the royal family would celebrate lavishly during those twelve days of Christmas. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, would provide twelve nights of conviviality and merriment at the palace, each night something different and special, — a ballet, a masked ball, a play by Shakespeare, etc., for royals and nobles. Although religious ceremonies were part of the twelve days of observing Christmas, they took a back seat to fun, frolic, feasting, dancing, and other forms of merriment.

            The English Puritans, filled with zeal for holiness and a passion for the truth of the Bible, were never happy with this secular emphasis by the royalty and nobility, and even by the “lower classes,” but had to tolerate it, at least until the Puritan Revolt. The Puritans were a pious group within the Church of England, who wanted to “purify” the Church, with the Queen (or King) considered the Head of the Church. Roman Catholicism was outlawed in England during the 17th and 18th Centuries, making it a treasonous crime to be a Catholic.

            Many people still believe, in spite of proof to the contrary, that the famous Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was a hidden proclamation of the outlawed Roman Catholic faith. Others believe it is just a delightful, nonsensical, secular Christmas song. Many commentators today call it “one of the most annoying Christmas carols ever written.” The first version of the carol appeared in 1780, and many more versions appeared since then, some even designating it as a proclamation of the Christian faith.

            I agree with the scholars who reject the idea that the poem is filled with hidden Christian and/or Catholic religious symbols. For example, today, the Tenth Day of Christmas (January 3), the narrator in the song provides his true love with “10 Lords a Leaping.” Those who see symbols consider this to be a secret code for the 10 Commandments. Tomorrow, the Eleventh Day of Christmas (January 4) calls for “11 Pipers Piping,’ viewed as the eleven faithful Apostles. And the Twelfth Night of Christmas (January 5) calls for”12 Drummers Drumming,” seen by the symbolists as the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed. Most of the symbolic interpretation could be seen as Church of England doctrine as well as Roman Catholic, so how could it be a secret code? Men leaping, flutes piping, and drummers drumming, — three days of song and dance to end the week!

            Without this rather “mysterious” song, whether nonsense or hidden symbols, I’m afraid most folks wouldn’t even think of observing twelve days of this important Christian Feast. Since Christmas decorations went up on Thanksgiving, and even on Halloween, some of the posts on Facebook are already saying, “Time to take the Christmas tree down.” No, don’t put it up in October in the first place! Today, we still have three more days to celebrate Christ’s birth. On January 1, we had five more days to celebrate and worship. The Wise Men haven’t arrived yet! They’re an important part of celebration and worship, — they were the first Gentiles to worship Jesus.

            I have to confess, some of us are kind of lazy about taking down decorations, but this week we can self-righteously say, “There are still three more days of Christmas left!”

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at www.amazon.com. 


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