Ken’s Famous Coney Sauce

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One of the nice things about having been on this earth for a extended period of time is that you get to experience many things. Some good, some bad. Some things that you remember and many things that you forget. Once in a while some thing, experience or event comes along that stays with you and provides many nice memories. One such thing for me was a coney dog. Not just any coney dog mind you. But one that stands out – nonpareil. The ultimate coney dog. A poor man’s gastronomical delight. One that shall never come this way again. For it just wasn’t the taste of that coney dog among coney dogs: it was the aura of a bygone era. Not only did the sauce covered wiener satisfy your appetite but the smells, sounds and sights of the surroundings made the consumption of this king of coney dogs an event to the looked forward to, cherished and remembered for years to come.

In the old days in Canton, Ohio there was an indoor version of a farmer’s market called the Arcade Market in downtown Canton where one could get the freshest produce, meat cut to order on the spot, actually home made items for your home and of course breakfast and lunch. Homer E. Dickes (Dick) a spry wisp of a man who seemed old even when I first met him as a five year old kid owned two eating venues within the old arcade. One was a sit-down counter that served lunch and breakfast. You could get that day’s version of fast food there, eggs made to order, various sandwiches, sodas and shakes, but there was one thing you couldn’t get there: that was a coney dog. For that you had to amble over towards the other side of the market, elbow your way up to a counter where Mr. Dickes himself served up coney dogs par excellence at Dick’s Coney Stand. During the rush at lunch time you some times had to stand five deep and hope you got served in time to get back to work. Lunch, at least in my working years consisted of two coney dogs washed down by an ice cold root beer. Mr. Dickes would take your order, grab his tongs and deftly fish the required number of wieners from  a pot where they had been simmering since early morning. He would then take a bun or buns from a steam warmer and with a quick flick of the wrist using a long soda spoon put the perfect amount of sauce on your dog. An assistant would bring your root beer and take your money while Mr. Dickes methodically waited on the next customer. In the thirty or forty years that I frequented Dick’s Coney Stand I don’t think I ever heard Mr. Dickes saying anything more that “what can I get you”. He was much too busy for chit-chat and I was much to eager to consume my prize dogs to want to converse with him anyhow.

Those days are long gone now, but the memories linger on. The Arcade Market was slowly pushed aside by the newly arrived aseptic and extremely mundane super markets. Dickes Coney Stand held its own against the fast food restaurants that started to populate downtown Canton, but even the popularity of his coneys couldn’t sustain the Arcade Market and keep it open. The Arcade Market finally lost its battle to serve the citizens of Canton and with its closing Dick’s Coney Stand served its last coney dog some time during the eighties. After its closing I along with others would search in vain for a coney that was comparable to Mr. Dickes’. At times I would come across one that was reasonably good but the ambiance – the sights, sounds, and smells of the old Arcade Market could not be replicated from that earlier time.

For years I had heard rumors that someone had the actual recipe for Mr. Dickes’ coney sauce. I was eventually given a copy of said recipe by a friend and eagerly set about making it in my home. What I was given was a pretty standard recipe for coney sauce that didn’t seem to be anything special and indeed my first few attempts at making the coney sauce didn’t produce the hoped for results. It took quite a few tries before I discovered that the secret to a good coney sauce wasn’t in the ingredients but it was in the preparation. Like all things of import the effort put into creating something whether it be a food item, a material object, or even a work of art directly impacts the final result. You can use the finest ingredients, building materials, or artist paints but if individual effort is lacking the finished item will leave something to be desired.

A quick search of the internet revealed a couple of recipes that were attributed to Mr. Dickes. The one that I offer here is one that has been circulated for years by word of mouth and is popularly thought to be the original recipe from Dick’s Coney Sauce. For many years now I have served this sauce to friends and family and it is now known in my somewhat limited circle as Ken’s Famous Coney Sauce. I have freely given out the recipe but invariably I get feedback from others that they just can’t make it the same way as I do. That is probably because of the required amount of effort that it takes to make a truly great coney sauce. It takes a couple hours of intense motivated effort to make the sauce come out right. An effort that most won’t put forth for a lowly wiener.

Ken’s Famous Coney Sauce

3 lbs. 85 – 90% ground beef

1 28oz can Dei Fratelli tomato puree

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons chili powder divided

2 teaspoons Sriracha sauce

 

1. Over medium heat combine the tomato puree, sugar and one-half of the chili powder, and the Sriracha sauce.

2. Brown the hamburger in a large skillet crumbling it with a spatula while cooking. Once the hamburger is browned evenly, reduce the heat to medium low. Now comes the first of two critical steps in making a great coney sauce. The hamburger needs to be crumbled into extremely fine particles; the finer the better. Pampered Chef makes a tool for chopping hamburger into fine particles that I use. It requires a lot of effort and time but I cannot overstress the importance of getting the hamburger particles as small as you can. I have been tempted to put the cooked hamburger into a food processor but I am not sure if a food processor is appropriate for use on meat. I usually move small amounts of hamburger to the center of the skillet and take out my frustrations on it with my Pampered Chef tool adding the hamburger to the sauce as I go.

3. While I am cooking the hamburger I slowly add the rest of the chili sauce a little at a time. This is the second of two critical steps. It is important to get a balance between the sweetness of the sugar and the tang of the chili sauce. For a sauce to be truly good you should be able to taste both the sweet and tangy at the same time with neither overpowering the other. You should have a lingering taste of chili with just a hint of sweetness. It is important to frequently taste the sauce as balance is critical. After making it for many years you will be able to pretty much tell how far along the sauce is by the color: the sauce will start to take on a rich dark red color from the dark chili powder when you are nearing completion.

All this sounds like a lot of work and it is, but the outcome is worth it. Rest assured that if you follow my directions you will be treated with a sauce that some day will come to be known as Sam’s, Jane’s or maybe if your name happens to be Ken – Ken’s Famous Coney Sauce.

The Reason For The Season

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T’is the season. But just what is the reason for the season?

Today I went out to purchase a couple of gifts for my grandchildren and my wife. As I wandered dazed and confused through the stores I began to wonder just why was I there among throngs of others all seemingly bent upon shopping til they drop. I thought to myself “do any of these shoppers really know why they are out spending all their money on gifts for others other than because it is the Christmas season“? Chances are they would all give the answer a friend of mine gave when I asked her why she was frantically buying gifts for family and friends. Her answer was – “because it’s Christmas“.

Because it’s Christmas? Just why do we run around mindlessly buying items for others that they most likely don’t need or even want? One reason put forth is that buying for others at Christmas is keeping with the spirit of giving. We give to others because we love them. Would my love for my wife, daughter, and grandchildren be any less if I didn’t buy them gifts at Christmas? We give to the less fortunate at Christmas. Giving to those who are less fortunate is certainly admirable, but why do most of us limit that giving to the Christmas season? What about peace on earth – goodwill towards men? Now there are good reasons for the season! But why limit your desire for peace and goodwill to the Christmas season? What a wonderful world it could be if we lived those thoughts throughout the year.

For most the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving. Infamous Black Friday starts the buying frenzy; a frenzy which for many doesn’t end until Christmas Eve. Santa Clause makes his first official appearance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. From then on that fat old guy in a red suit is everywhere. My grandchildren had their first visit from Santa at a Christmas party the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Between then and Christmas day those kids will sit on Santa’s knee five or more times before he finally makes his way down their chimney.

I am not a particularly religious person. Most of the time I am not sure there is a god. If there is a god somewhere up there I am not sure he would approve of our conduct during the Christmas season. In keeping with my doubts about god I am not sure that Jesus was the son of god any more than all of us are children of god, but coming from a time past I grew up to believe that Christmas was a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I do recognize Jesus as a great teacher and philosopher and I am sure if he were alive now and could see what is going on during the Christmas season he would clear the malls of vendors much like he cleared the moneylenders from the temple. Years ago Jesus played a much more significant part of the Christmas season. Our local newspaper ran a daily strip telling the story of the nativity: that strip was discontinued many years ago. Nearly every Christmas tree had a ceramic nativity scene at its base: ours has been packed away for ten or more years. Today only the most religious among us see the Christmas season as a season of hope because of the birth of Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the line Christmas got transformed from a religious holiday into a season of indulgence, gluttony, and gross materialism that is more that a little bewildering.

Now I am not saying that we should discontinue buying gifts for others or having Christmas parties. Nor would I banish Santa Claus. But, I would suggest that in between trips to the mall we each take a moment and ask ourselves just what is the reason for the season.

MY FAVORITE TOY

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At this time of year most children have a favorite toy that they want Santa to bring on Christmas Eve. Some of those toys will only be played with for a day or even just and hour or two and never see the light of day until being sold at mom and dad’s next garage sale. Other toys will become a cherished favorite to provide hours of pleasure and memories for years to come. As each child grows up one toy above all others will become their favorite. For some it may be a certain doll, a toy six gun and holster, or that first two-wheel bicycle. The memory of that favorite toy will stay with a person well into adulthood and provide many fond memories.

My favorite toy of all time wasn’t actually a toy at all. It was a humongous cardboard box that a neighbor’s new refrigerator came in. As a boy of seven growing up with few toys I was left to improvise for my own entertainment. That meant using my imagination and when I saw that gigantic box sitting outside my neighbor’s house I immediately saw many possibilities for it and knew I just had to have it and was delighted when my neighbor gave it to me.

That box was quite a lot bigger than me and as I struggled to drag it home I started forming plans for my great find. The fist thing I did was to turn it into a fort. A fort that I would defend against marauding pirates. Using my pocket knife I cut a flap in one side where I could fire salvos from my imaginary canon at those pesky pirates; no way they were going to conquer Ft. Ken. When the other kids in the neighborhood saw how much fun I was having in my fort it quickly became a clubhouse for all the neighbor kids. For awhile I was the most popular kid in the neighborhood. I was the club president naturally since it was my clubhouse. I would pass judgment on prospective members, no one was admitted without my say-so. I was also the keeper of the secret password which each member had to say before being admitted to the clubhouse.

But most of all this spacious brown mansion was my refuge and my sanctuary where I could get away from what at that time was not a pleasant world for me. When alone in the confines of my treasured abode I was at peace. Nothing in the outside world could bother me. Even though my sanctuary was made of compressed paper I was safe inside.

The power of a child’s imagination can turn the most ordinary things into things of pleasure. A simple stick becomes a sword to banish evil knights. A piece of clothes line becomes a lariat to herd little doggies. Sometimes less really does become more when our imaginations are set free to explore possibilities. Today’s toys with few exceptions offer children a much of a chance to use their imagination. They stare blankly into video screens oblivious to the world around them. Not using their imaginations to take them to wondrous places to explore or take them on exciting adventures.

I believe that the key to happiness and personal fulfillment comes from within and not from material objects. That is why I always tried to provide puzzles, books, arts and crafts for first my daughter and then my grandchildren. If I could I would give my grandchildren a similar box this Christmas but I am sure my family would have me committed. But, if my grandchildren would ever have a toy that wasn’t really a toy which gave them the chance to explore and expand their imaginations like I did; maybe, just maybe they too might look back some sixty years later and fondly remember their favorite toy that wasn’t really a toy at all.

Coping When Your Spouse Has Breast Cancer

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At one time if you looked up Type A Personality in the dictionary you would find my picture. To say that I was a ball of stress was to put it mildly. However, I knew that living with too much stress was not good for me and I set out to overcome stress and my reactions to it. In an effort to overcome stress, mellow out and basically improve myself as a human being I read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I read everything from Dale Carnegie to Dr. Wayne Dyer. As I poured over these books and tried everything imaginable I came to the realization that was I was getting really stressed trying to overcome stress itself. Oh, there was some improvement but not as much as I wanted; not until I came across a book entitled Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn . First published in 1994 Wherever You Go There You Are has made a big change in my life and it may literally have saved my life: more about that in a bit.

I have probably read the book somewhere near twenty times or more since I first read it in the mid-nineties. At first glance Wherever You Go There You Are seems like a book about meditation. Indeed, a large part of the book is taken up with meditation practices and instructions on how to meditate. But, meditation is just a tool that is used to bring about the state of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be a difficult concept to grasp and can be confused with the practices of Zen, Buddhism, and Taoism. There are similarities to those but mindfulness is in itself not a religious or moral philosophy. At its most basic, mindfulness is being acutely aware of your actions, yourself, your surroundings, your thoughts and your reactions to those thoughts. Once you get the hang of it, it is as though you are an observer; not only of yourself and things around you but also of your thoughts and actions. Those of you who are or were athletes can liken it to being in “the zone”. It is a state of non-doing; effortless effort; a state where there is no you or action being performed by you, it is as though all is one and any activity you are engaged in is unfolding by itself and while you are engaged in that activity you are somehow disengaged and have become an observer of the unfolding of that activity. I wasn’t much of an athlete but I do remember being in the zone during one particular basketball game in high school and later in life I remember being in the zone several times while playing golf, especially during the two holes-in-one I had.

The most important thing in cultivating mindfulness is making use of your breath to center yourself during times of great stress. According to the general adaptation syndrome one’s first reaction to a period of great stress is to either fight or flee. Mindfulness avoids both reactions by centering yourself on your breath and becoming an observer of what is happening and thereby avoiding what could be a catastrophic reaction to times of great stress. In the interest of brevity I will leave it to those of you who may be more interested in mindfulness to pick up a copy of Wherever You Go There You Are and decide for themselves whether or not it mindfulness might help them.

Now on to how mindfulness might actually have saved my life; if not my life it certainly may have saved my sanity.

In October of 2006 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. One thing was apparent from the start: no matter how hard I wanted to help, no matter how much I cared; when someone you love develops cancer of any form there is really nothing that you can do. Sure, you can try to comfort that person. You can be there for the person you love but the reality is that each person who gets a cancer of any form must face it in his or hers own way.

After the diagnosis my wife underwent a surgery procedure called a lumpectomy where the tumor was removed along with some lymph nodes. While she recovered from the surgery we waited for the results of the biopsy of the tumor. A few weeks after the surgery I accompanied my wife to her first visit to the oncologist. There we received the news that my wife’s form of cancer was a particularly aggressive form with a high rate of recurrence. She also test positive and very high for something called the HER2 receptor. The oncologist determined that my wife’s treatment needed to be as aggressive as the cancer and my wife would have to undergo a year of treatment to combat the cancer. The oncologist prescribed a series of radiation treatments, along with several chemotherapy drugs and an antibody drug to combat the HER2 receptor. On somewhat of a bright note her surgeon had done a good job in removing the cancer and the removed lymph nodes showed no sign of the cancer having spread.

If going to a cancer center in the hospital wasn’t bad enough the long walk down the hallway to the cancer center makes it all the worse. Once you reach the end of the hallway you enter the room where patients are waiting to receive their radiation treatment. It is pretty much a standard waiting room with the exception that it is packed wall to wall with people, all with cancer except for the few family members present. As I waited for my wife to get her radiation treatment I would sometimes talk to other patients awaiting treatment. Some were upbeat and open about their conditions. Others were resigned to having cancer and having to get the treatments that may or may not save their lives. There was one common thread: that was the feelings of the family members that were with the patients. For the most part the family members seemed to be at least emotionally suffering from the same mental state – one of helplessness. All would have gladly traded places with their loved one. But that wasn’t possible.

The treatment room at the oncology clinic was particularly depressing – at least to me. The room was one large open area with approximately 30 extremely uncomfortable recliners where the patients received their chemotherapy. The chairs were quite close to each other and there was no separation of any kind between patients. It was not uncommon to look across the aisle to see a patient being stuck with an IV needle and being hooked up to various sized bags containing the drugs prescribed for them. Being a bit squeamish I usually turned my eyes when a patient would be connected to their IV’s. The ones I found most disturbing were when a patient had to receive his or hers chemo via a port surgically installed in them or receive their chemo treatment via a needle in their abdomen.

My wife’s initial chemotherapy consisted of being connected to three IV bags which at the start took up to four hours to empty into her veins. My wife was able to take her treatments in stride and I as the dutiful husband went to her treatments with her. But, I at times felt that I was letting her down; not being able to do anything to make her chemotherapy more bearable.

The weekly treatments were interspersed with visits to her oncologist, follow ups with the surgeon and visits to various departments of the hospital for this test and that test. One of those tests was a thing called a MUGA scan (Multiple Gated Acquisition scan).In this procedure we had to once again descend into the bowels of the hospital and wind our ways through the labyrinths of the hallways that connect the outside world to the radiation center of the hospital. This test could not have been fun for my wife. She first had to have blood drawn. The blood was then treated with a radioactive material and was then injected back into her. Afterwards she had to lay perfectly still on a cold table so an overhead camera could check the condition of her heart. It seems as though one of the drugs she was being given had a history of possible heart damage and she had to have this scan every three months.

The weekly chemotherapy and intermittent tests were our routine for almost a year. My wife’s blood work showed that the chemotherapy was apparently working well and by October of 2007 we were looking forward to the end of her treatments late in December. Things were looking so good that she decided to buy a new car in October. God knows she deserved it. However she only got to drive it for a couple of weeks.

On October 27, 2007 my wife had an appointment with her primary care physician. Since it was just a standard checkup not related to her cancer treatments I decided not to go with her and stayed home. About two hours later I got a call from her. She said that she had fallen in her doctor’s parking lot and needed to go to stat care. I got in my car and drove to the doctor’s office which was only about five minutes away. When I got there my wife was sitting on the sidewalk with a sheet of paper in her hand. I asked what had happened and how badly she was hurt. She told me that she had slipped and fallen on a defective wheelchair ramp at her doctor’s office. She said that she had lain there for some time and when no one came by to help her she drug herself into her doctor’s office where her doctor examined her and gave her an order to have x-rays taken at stat care. To this day I am still mad as hell at her doctor for not calling the rescue squad and having her taken to the emergency room. Just looking at her with various cuts and bruises as well has what looked to be a broken foot should have warranted an ambulance ride to the emergency room. When I got her to stat care they did take her right in, checked her out and took x-rays. This is where the story gets me a little more upset. The x-rays showed that she did have a broken foot as well as a fractured shoulder bone and a dislocated shoulder. Instead of treating her or sending her to the hospital they gave her another piece of paper and told her to go to an orthopedic doctor. Incensed I drove her to Omni Orthopedics where her broken foot was put in a cast and her shoulder was popped back into place. I found a sympathetic ear in the director of Omni Orthopedics and he called the stat care facility and chewed them out for letting my wife leave in her condition. If there was ever a day from hell that was it.

A couple of days later it was time for her cancer treatment. This time the treatment was to be different. I had to wheel her into the clinic and help her into the chair for her treatment. If things weren’t bad enough for my wife when the nurse tried to connect my wife to the IV she couldn’t find a vein for the needle. Her veins had been shrinking from the numerous IV’s that she had to endure. Her veins were barely visible and so small that the nurse couldn’t get a needle in even using an ultra fine hypodermic needle. Two, three, four times the nurse tried – to no avail. Another nurse came and tried several times more. As I watched I wanted to cry out – “Here use my veins. Mine are large and getting a needle in them is no problem.” But no; following the principal of helplessness that governs the behavior of family members – no substitutions are allowed. Finally after what seemed to be eight or nine tries the nurse was able to get an IV into my wife and she was able to receive her treatment.

Later that evening after my wife had gone to bed I took my shower and sat down in the living room to relax a little. As I sat in the darkness a strange feeling came over me. At first it just seemed like a little nervousness but then the feeling took an unexpected turn. Slowly but intensely I began to feel as though all emotion was being drained from me. It seemed as though my very being was being sucked out of my body. I remember thinking “so this is what a nervous breakdown feels like.” It was then that I remembered the practice of mindfulness that I had been working on. With what I had left in me I began to concentrate on my breathing. Just watching and experiencing my breath as it went in and out. I went into the mode of an observer, watching what was going on with my body and my emotions. No panic. No resistance. Just watching. Observing without emotion. Slowly the feeling of being drained subsided. Still watching my breath, normalcy started to return. It seemed like a lifetime but it probably only lasted a few minutes. I am sure that had I panicked and given into the fight or flee response of the general adaptation syndrome I might possibly not have made it through that episode and might actually have had a nervous breakdown.

About two months later after my wife’s treatments for cancer had finished and she was about to start physical therapy for her injuries from her fall she caught pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital. One evening after a particularly stressful day trying to deal with an hospitalist doctor with an attitude I headed home. That night as I sat in my chair the feeling of my very essence wanting to leave my body came back again. But this time I recognized what was happening and was able to deal with it much more easily. Early on I concentrated on my breath and went into observer mode. This time the feeling was much less intense and didn’t last nearly as long.

Shortly after my wife had regained her health. My mother was diagnosed with a form of leukemia that would eventually take her life. During this time another minor occurrence of this feeling returned, (See my blog Watching Momma Die). From the time my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and the death of my mother was a period of almost three years. Three years of hell that I don’t think I could have coped with had it not been for Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book.

Wherever You Go, There You Are has changed the way I deal with difficulties in life both big and small. No longer do I throw wrenches against the wall when I can’t fix something. Nor do I curse and swear anymore while trying to make sense of the directions that came with my new gas grill. (Those inscrutable little Chinese, print equally inscrutable owner’s manual). I can now take almost anything with equanimity.

Even such a calamitous event as the July 19th deluge that hit our area and backed up the sanitary sewer into my basement didn’t cause me to lose control of myself. As my recreation room turned into a pool of sewer water I simply focused on my breath and became a nonjudgmental observer. I looked at the sewage coming up through my floor drain and calmly observed it without letting it control me. Trouble was I was so wrapped up in being an observer that I didn’t observe that water the was now up to my ankles and it was then that I remembered the electricity was still on. Sometimes fleeing is still an appropriate response.

Fall is Time for Mums

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Fall is in the air and anyone who is anybody is planting mums. The chrysanthemum, or in this case the hardy garden mum brings a quick splash of color to our gardens when all the other flowers in our gardens are waning. At a time when your roses are getting ready for a long winter’s nap the garden mum is ready to brighten your garden and lift your spirits. The hardy garden mum comes in a multitude of colors that can literally bring the rainbow into your flower beds.

When I worked at a couple of the local garden centers where I was employed as a nursery technician I was amazed by the number of customers who would come in and say that they wanted to get their yearly mums for their gardens. Invariably most customers would say that their mums didn’t make it through the winter and they wanted new ones to bring color and cheer to their gardens. This doesn’t have to be the case: with minimal care you can keep those beautiful mums coming back for many years to come. And I do mean minimal care. Even if you don’t have a green thumb if you follow a few simple steps you will amaze your friends and neighbors with the bounty of beautiful mums that keep coming back year after year.

The first step is to purchase healthy plants from your local garden center. At this time of the year mums are for sale everywhere. The local drug store, the grocery store, roadside produce stands and flea markets to name a few. The problem is, the mums you see at places such as the drug store receive minimal care by store employees who know absolutely nothing about the proper care of bedding plants. Just yesterday I stopped at a local drug store which I shall not name and by the entrance they had a large display of six inch pots of mums that looked like they were on their last legs. Had these mums been in my care while I worked at the garden centers I would most likely have been sent packing. Those mums were so pitiful that they should have been put into the dumpster. The price on these sad sacks was 2 for $9.00. Unfortunately most people think that flowers at a local garden center are going to be much more expensive, but that is not the case. Compare the beautiful, extremely large plants in eight inch pots in the above picture. Those beauties were 4 for $18.00 at my local garden center. During my storied past I have been an Ohio Certified Nursery Technician and a dedicated amateur botanist and I can tell you that buying healthy and beautiful plants at your local garden center not only pays dividends in the long run but most of the time is no more expensive than the big box stores that try to flim-flam into thinking they have educated, dedicated personnel who’s only purpose in life is to sell you the best plants available. That just isn’t the case!

The next step in caring for your mums is the easiest  – just plant them and enjoy. The only tip I might give you for planting is to examine the roots. Quite often the roots on those massive plants such as the ones I purchased can be crowded in the pot. Just take a knife or your pruning shears and nick the roots a little. This will help promote the growth of feeder roots which will help the plants get established before winter rears its ugly head. Do not give the plants any fertilizer at all. This will only promote weak growth at a time when the plants will not be able to sustain that growth. A little bone meal in the bottom of the planting hole is the only thing you should give the plants other than a healthy drink of water when planting.

After planting sit back and enjoy your mums until winter comes. Once the first frosts bring an unwanted end to the colorful flowers on your plants comes the next step in insuring that you have mums from your own garden next year. That step is, don’t instinctively cut down your mums. Using my technique of keeping your mums from year to year is to leave the stems on the plants. What you need to do is wait for a period where you get two or three days when the temperatures stay below freezing constantly. Then you can cut off the flower heads leaving the now brown stems. The next step is to mulch the plants with six to eight inches of mulch or dead leaves that you have raked up from your yard; you can even mound dirt on top of the plants if you want. The idea here is to let the root balls of the plants freeze and then mulch them in order to keep the roots cold all winter. The main reason mums and certain other plants have difficulty making it through the winter is that the vagaries of winters in our area don’t keep some plants constantly in dormancy throughout the winter. Mums are especially prone to wanting to start to grow when we have periods of warm weather in the middle of winter. Once we have a few days of warm weather mums will want to start growing again and if any amount of new growth takes place it will be quickly killed off when the freeze comes back. If you mulch your mums correctly the roots will be kept cold during that January thaw and stay asleep as they should.

When warm weather does come along in the spring you can remove the mulch once the ground has warmed and you see signs of new growth at the base of the mum plants. Now that spring is here and new growth on your mums is quite evident it is time to cut off the old growth. Cut the brown stems down to a nubbin and let the plants develop an inch or two of new growth. Next we are going to use the division technique I wrote about in my last blog about dividing irises and daylilies. I like to lift the entire root ball, shake off the dirt and then divide the plant. Mums spread by sending out stolen and you can actually see what can be new viable mum plants by looking closely at the roots. After dividing the plants place your new plants 24 inches apart because what I am going to have you do next is the same practice that is used in your local garden center. The way they get those huge, beautiful, round mum plants is by pinching the plant stems at regular intervals. The method I use is to pinch the stems after every second leaf of new growth. I usually do this until somewhere around August 7-14. This may be a little late to make the last pinch of your mums. Most commercial growers make the last pinch of their mum plants on August 1st. This insures showy blooms during fall’s peak color time. I like to do it a little later because I like to try and keep blooms on my mums until Halloween. I know it is a little risky because we quite often get a killing frost before Halloween. But, I stay prepared with plenty of newspapers to cover my mums to protect them. Otherwise give your mums a little fertilizer on the first of every month until July 1st. As I said before any fertilizer at a late date just promotes weak growth that most likely can’t be sustained.

If you follow these few simple steps you can have beautiful mums that keep coming back year after year. Who knows you may even wind up with enough to set up your own roadside stand next fall.

Eating My Mistakes

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The following post was first posted by me at www.northcantonpatch.com .

 

A few years ago my wife had some serious health problems and I took over the household duties, which included doing the cooking. Other than desecrating a hamburger once in awhile I pretty much let my wife handle the cooking for the previous forty years of our married life. Learning to cook has been one of my life’s most daunting learning experiences.

The first thing I learned about cooking is that you are pretty much committed to eating your mistakes. This means munching on burned meat, mushy overcooked veggies, and the remnants of that omelet that you tried to flip like the chef on television. And therein is one of the main problems of learning how to cook. Those know-it-all chef’s on television don’t live in the real word. Alton Brown has no idea what it is to try to cook on a limited budget funded by a small retirement income. Rachel Ray would quickly loose her plasticized smile trying to cook on a thirty year old Kenmore range that has the temperamental controls of a woman in the middle of menopause. The only “Bams” Emeril would hear are me slamming a pan into the kitchen sink when I forgot a main ingredient in a recipe and the result was chicken cacciatore that tasted like the chicken got run over by a semi as it crossed the road.

This Sunday’s dinner is what started this discourse. I made pan-seared sirloin steaks, duchess potatoes, and curried peas. The steaks and the store bought rolls were the only edible items of the dinner. The duchess potatoes were the result of watching a cooking show during the afternoon on PBS. Another of my learning experiences has been to take all these TV cooks’ advice with a grain of – nay a hearty pinch of salt. The nice lady with the perpetual smile told me that my russet potatoes would be cooked to a delicately tender state after simmering for only twenty minutes. It took my Sear’s range a full thirty minutes just to bring the water to a simmer. Forty-five minutes later the potatoes were finally tender enough to be put through their paces in my potato ricer. Trying to work quickly and not get scalded too badly by the hot potatoes I managed to pipe them onto a cooking sheet and into the oven at somewhere near 400 degrees. I put the steaks into a hot skillet and went to work on the curried peas. Following the recipe I dutifully made a roux that resembled something a diarrheic dog might leave on my sidewalk. Adding peas, beef broth, and powdered curry let me believe I was on my way to a meal worth bragging about. I later learned a good deal about curry powder and that is; a little curry powder goes a long, long way.

Finally, almost three hours after starting the meal was ready and I called my wife to the table. If the state department ever needs a skilled diplomat I want to recommend my wife. She sweetly said that the meal was very good as she crunched tough overcooked duchess potatoes; a result of being extruded too thinly through a pastry pipe. She even had a second helping of the eye-watering curried peas.

In return I did the dishes. That brings me to today’s final learning experience about cooking. Cooking for two is difficult enough with the normal problems of shopping for two. But it is exacerbated by the mess you make. Cooking for two still makes a mountain of dishes to wash and that can be a disheartening experience after a dinner gone wrong.

Next Sunday – Pizza!

It’s Dividing Time Again, Iris’s Gonna Leaf Me

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The fourteenth day of September is an important day for me or should I say it is an important day for my garden. September fourteenth is the day that I start to divide my irises. The iris is my favorite flower (see my photo blog Spectacular Irises ). Irises are beautiful flowers that will provide years of spectacular blooms but they do require a little care. With the proper care prized heirloom irises can be passed down from generation to generation. Besides proper planting the most important thing in order to have healthy and long lived irises is that they should be divided every two or three years. If they are not divided they may seem to be healthy for a number of years but eventually they become overgrown, susceptible to disease, and rotting. Left to their own devices the clump of irises that you love so may simply die out from neglect.

To divide irises first take the entire clump out of the ground using a large shovel or pitchfork. Place the clump on the ground and knock off as much dirt as possible. Once all the dirt is off inspect the plant for damage. If irises are left in the ground for more than a couple of years they will grow outward from old growth usually leaving an unproductive and possibly diseased or rotting center. Once you have identified the center of the clump break off or pull apart the individual rhizomes. A rhizome is difficult to describe but easily identifiable. It looks somewhat like a cross between a root, and a tuber. It has roots growing off of it and has a gnarly appearance. One of the main reasons for waiting until September fourteenth to divide my irises is that the eyes which will provide new flowers now begin to appear on the base of the rhizomes. The iris eyes look like small onion sets and may be a half inch in diameter down to a mere nubbin, just a tiny bump on the rhizome. If you have trouble identifying the eyes at least make sure you get a healthy looking rhizome with a full fan of leaves on it. Chances are it will have at least a developing eye on it even if you can’t readily see it. Once you have separated the rhizomes discard the unproductive center. Examine the separated rhizomes carefully for insect holes, rotted centers, and any other signs of disease and discard any that are doubtful. Once you have done this give the roots and leaves a haircut. The reason for trimming the leaves is to lessen the demands on the roots after the dividing process. Intuitively one would think that all the roots should be kept intact but giving them a quick trimming helps to promote the growth of the fine feeder roots during the fall and gives the plant a chance to establish a sturdy foundation before winter arrives. If you have any rooting powder or solution it helps to treat the roots to stimulate new growth. The last thing I do is to dust the wounds where I broke the rhizomes off with sulfur dust. This helps to prevent disease and infections of the wounded plant.

Next comes planting your new iris plants. This is probably the most important step in the cultivation of irises. Irises must be planted with the top half of the rhizome out of the ground and exposed to the air and sun. If irises are planted completely underground they will quickly rot and soon die. Like all plants irises need moisture to grow; but they need well drained and dry soil conditions, otherwise they will struggle to survive. If you have ever been working in your garden around irises and smelled a powerful stench that smells something between rotting flesh and rotting garbage you probably have encountered an iris that was planted completely underground in wet conditions. If you look closely you will most likely see that the center of the clump is rotting and if left unattended the entire clump will eventually die out. When planting iris rhizomes dig a hole large enough in diameter to accommodate the rhizome and deep enough that the roots have plenty of room. Once you have the hole dug, take some of the excavated dirt and form a firm mound of dirt as high as the level of the surrounding ground. Place the rhizome on top of the dirt mound and spread the roots out around it. Then backfill the hole around the roots making sure that the top of the rhizome is exposed. Pat the dirt firmly in place and water liberally. Do Not ! I repeat – Do Not fertilize the newly planted iris. The last thing you want to do with any perennial flower is to promote new leaf and stem growth going into winter. The new growth will not be strong enough to survive the winter and it decreases the chances of the new plant surviving into spring. If you just can’t resist doing something to help the plant grow you can sprinkle a little bone meal on the bottom of the hole before planting.

Dividing my irises can sometimes take a couple of weeks, After I am done with the irises I turn my attention to my daylilies. I divide my daylilies not for the health of the plant but for propagation reasons. While daylilies can be divided in the spring I have found that I get the best results dividing my daylilies in late September. There are two ways to divide daylilies. One way is to simply chomp down trough the plant with a shovel, or in the case of some of the larger daylilies use an axe or even a saw to cut apart the larger clumps. I prefer to dig the entire plant out of the ground and then looking for the natural forming smaller clumps within the larger plant. On smaller daylilies such as the Stella D’Oro you can identify and pull apart the divisions with great success. I have taken 5 or so Stella D’Oro daylilies and multiplied them into dozens of plants.

I have one last dividing tip for those of you who might have read my spring blog Butterfly Gardening. If you would like to have more butterfly bushes in your garden try the following method of propagation. Snip seven or eight pencil thick cuttings about six inches long from your butterfly bush. Be sure to make the bottom cut just below a leaf node on a forty-five degree diagonal. Make the top cut just above a leaf node, again on a forty-five degree diagonal. Tie the cuttings together with string and bury the cuttings about five or six inches deep in your garden. Mark the location of your cuttings in some way that will last through the winter so that you can find them in the spring. Resist the temptation to check on their progress during the early spring: leave them in the ground until late May when temperatures have risen and the ground has warmed. If you are lucky you may be rewarded with one or two new butterfly bushes.

Flower gardening doesn’t have to be and expensive affair. Using the division technique of propagating plants can not only save a lot money, it also provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Late September and early October is also the time to plant spring flowering bulbs, such as tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils. Plant the bulbs three to four times the height of the bulb. Adding a little bone meal to the bottom of the planting hole will help root growth and give the bulbs a head start heading into winter.

With a little work and some planning, you will be well rewarded for your efforts with a bevy of beautiful blooms next spring.

Take This Medicine Only On The Advice of Your Attorney

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While watching television with my wife one evening a commercial came on for an antidepressant drug. After a short explanation of the drug’s benefits for someone already taking an antidepressant  the commercial started to warn of possible side effects from the drug. As I watched, the narrator stated the possible side effects of the drug which included an increased risk of death, cancer and all sorts of problems, none of them good. I turned to my wife and said, “why on earth would anyone take that drug.” I remember thinking that if one wasn’t depressed before taking the drug they certainly might be after hearing of all the side effects.

Just in case anyone thinks I might be exaggerating I taped the commercial and meticulously copied the drug’s warning. I won’t name the drug for fear of  discouraging anyone who might be taking the drug from taking their prescription. I also don’t want to name the drug for fear of a lawsuit from the drug manufacturer. More about lawsuits later.

What follows is the commercial’s side effects warning, word for word:

“Call your doctor if you have unusual changes in mood, behavior, or thoughts of suicide. Antidepressants can increase these in children, teens, and young adults. Elderly dementia patients taking  have an in******** **creased risk of death. Call your doctor if you have fever, stiff muscles and confusion as these may be signs of a life threatening reaction; or if you have uncontrollable muscle movement as these could become permanent. High blood sugar has been reported with ******** ** and medicines like it and in extreme cases can lead to coma and death. Your doctor should check for cataracts. Other risks include decreases in white blood cells which can be fatal. Seizure, increased cholesterol, weight gain, dizziness on standing, drowsiness, impaired judgment and trouble swallowing. Use caution when driving or operating machinery.”

Wow! Thoughts of suicide, increased risk of death, coma and death, a fatal decrease in white blood cells. Talk about depressing. If you weren’t suffering from depression before you certainly would be after reading about all the side effects. The commercial never really weighed the benefits of taking the drug against the possible risks and if I were a person for whom this drug was prescribed I would think twice before taking it. I am pretty sure the list of side effects was written by an attorney in an effort to prevent lawsuits should anyone develop severe side effects from taking the drug.

It may sound like I am being flippant about this but the effort by drug companies to list all possible side effects no matter how minute the risk in an effort to avoid getting sued has the negative effect of discouraging people from taking medicines that doctors prescribe. For example my mother when diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia refused to take a drug that the oncologist prescribed for her (see my blog WATCHING MOMMA DIE ) that might have extended her life because one of the side effects listed on the fact sheet was an increased risk of heart attack and she was afraid that she would die from a heart attack. It didn’t matter that the oncologist thought the drug held the best hope of extending her life for her. I myself have been reluctant to take certain drugs because of the possible side effects.

So what is one to do? The first thing is to discuss any prescription written for you with your doctor. Ask what the doctor knows about possible side effects, the degree of risk, and how the drug’s benefits outweigh the possible side effects. When you take the prescription to be filled take the time and effort to talk to the pharmacist about possible side effects and any possible interactions with any other drugs you are taking. I know that most pharmacies have computers that are supposed to look for interactions with other medicines you are taking but the reality is most pharmacists and their clerks don’t pay enough attention to any flags that the computer might send up. Don’t hesitate to ask to talk to the pharmacist filling the prescription. Never forget you are the customer and have a right to get the information you need. This also applies to prescriptions that are issued in hospitals. Don’t take it for granted that the hospital checks for interactions. When my mother was in the hospital during her illness I questioned a drug that was prescribed for her and after double checking with the pharmacist they found a conflict with another of her medicines and changed it. When getting a prescription from a commercial pharmacy be sure to read the fact sheet that comes with every prescription.

Most of all if you have any concerns at all discuss them with your doctor. It is your body and you are the final authority as to what goes in it.

Grandpa Daycare

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Today as my grandson stepped on the bus which would take him to all day kindergarten a journey that lasted a little more than seven years ended for me;  and a long journey of discovery began for him. His older sister had started the same journey two years ago. The beginnings of their journeys marked the end of the most rewarding journey of my life.

Almost eight years ago my wife and I received news that my daughter was pregnant and would be having a baby girl in March of 2004. My wife and I were ecstatic and eagerly looked forward to the arrival of our granddaughter. At that time my son-in-law was a teacher and my daughter had a good job as a product manager for a local manufacturing company. Considering the high cost of providing for children they both wanted to keep working and they began looking for daycare facilities for the new baby. A few months before the birth of my granddaughter they had pretty much made up their minds to place the baby in daycare at a center located in a church on the other side of the city. I am sure that it was a good daycare center and it was run by a friend of my daughter whom she trusted. But it got me to thinking. The center was a good 20-30 minute drive across town. The firm where my daughter worked was located 45 minutes away from the center and this meant that the baby would have to be taken from her crib at maybe 6:00 AM; driven clear to the other side of town where she would spend the day with strangers. This played on my mind for some time and I couldn‘t stop thinking that their must be a better option for my soon to be granddaughter. At that time I was working at a part-time job that only supplied me with a minimal income and certainly no sense of accomplishing anything of import. With those things in mind I decided to offer to provide daycare for the new baby. That way my granddaughter would be able to sleep in, in the comfort of her own crib and wake up to the smiling face of someone who loved her. The way I saw it, it was a no-brainer.

My offer was accepted and my duties started about two months after my granddaughter was born. Things went pretty much as I expected. My days were filled with bottles, dirty diapers and watching Brainy Baby and Little Einsteins video tapes. It wasn’t hard work. I enjoyed it immensely and I even had time for a nap between diaper changes and scheduled feedings. I thought this is going to be a snap; a few years of fun and games with a beautiful little girl and then I could go back to being semi-retired. But – surprise, surprise: sixteen and one-half months later my daughter gave birth to a bouncing, and I do mean bouncing baby boy. That is when I gained a greater respect for all mothers who raise more than one child on their own. Taking care of one little child is a joy – taking care of two, especially two who are close in age is work. Having two kids who both need their diapers changed, want fed at the same time and work together to entertain you with stereophonic fits can drive a grandpa to drink. But, at the same time it was double the fun. Taking them both to story time at the library or to the park was time well spent. Days flew by singing the ABC’s, scribbling with crayons, and reading books to them were moments that will remain with me forever.

Many people have asked me if I got paid for the years I took care of the kids. I did, but not in the monetary sense and the paydays were frequent and very welcome. Some paydays were small such as joyful giggles from the kids while playing This Little Piggy; some paydays were large which included bonuses of hugs and kisses. While I didn’t get paid in dollars I can guarantee that Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Donald Trump combined have never had paydays greater than mine. Such as the one a few months ago when my grandson and I were watching the Disney channel: he was watching his favorite show, Phineas and Ferb when he turned to me and said matter-of-factly “grandpa, I love you” then turned back to his show just as though it was the most common place and natural of events. I got paid that day and it was a paycheck that I would not trade for any amount of money. Moments such as that are the moments that make life worth living. It reminded me of my biggest payday ever when a little three year old girl squeezed my neck so hard that I actually couldn’t breathe and said “Daddy I love you.” Eat your heart out Bill Gates.

Caring for my grandchildren the past seven years has been a great learning experience. I have learned a lot about children and a lot about myself. As I watched the children grow I could sense growth in myself. As I filled the needs of two infants I also filled needs of my own. As I was faced with the demands of toddlers in their “terrible twos” I found myself more giving. I learned things that I had forgotten as I tried to teach such simple things as counting and the ABC’s to the kids. Most of all I reconnected with the child in myself and I think that has made all the difference. Most people look at me with the kids and see a foolish old man acting childish. But inside I know that it is those who would call me foolish that are missing out. The joy and wonder that is inherent with being a little child is lost all too soon; especially in today’s result oriented society where children are faced with more and more challenges to excel.

I learned a lot of other things watching the kids for the past seven years. I learned the names of all four Wiggles. I learned that Pete on Mickey’s Clubhouse is really a cat. I also learned that Barney was actually a lot of fun to watch. I learned the third position in ballet even though doing it would send me to the chiropractor. I got reconnected with the library which had nurtured me as a little boy in a one room library in northeast Canton. I also learned several skills. I learned how to make balloon animals to entertain the kids. One of the highlights of my stint of providing daycare was making balloon animals for the 245 kindergarteners of the Plain Local Kindergarten Center. I also learned to do origami; a somewhat impractical skill. Just what do you do with one thousand peace cranes?

Watching the kids for seven years has also kept me in shape. If you want real exercise try pushing a double stroller up a hill with two feuding siblings inside while towing a dog on a leash. Both kids have been dancing in the Plain Local Schools Saturday Enrichment program since they were two and I do my best to dance with them every chance I get thereby getting my aerobic exercise. My cholesterol went down for the first 4-5 years I was watching the kids as a result of having a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast with the kids and sharing my cereal milk with them.

All in all the last seven years have been a blur and have gone by way too fast. But as with all living things, the river of life keeps flowing steadily. It flows relentlessly to the same destination for all living things;  human and animal, old and young. Its waters show no preference for the passengers it carries along. Eventually all will arrive at the same ocean of eternity. At 67 I can hear the waters cascading into the never ending confluence where the raging waters meet the peaceful ocean of eternity. Sometimes in the evening as I sit pondering my mortality I can feel the mist of the river’s waters as it rushes to my final destination. For some, our trips on the river of life are long: some are short. Some find their journey a pleasant and enjoyable trip while others are buffeted about relentlessly by raging rapids going over rocky shoals. My trip down the river has been mixed. Sometimes I was battered by the relentless waters, not able to steer any sort of course on my own. But once in awhile such as in the past seven years the journey has been languid, peaceful and filled with much joy. As my grandchildren go forward with their journeys upon the river I hope that their trips will be long, filled with joy and self-fulfillment. My physical presence won’t be with them for all of their trip but they can rest assured that grandpa will be with them. I am a part of them. Wherever they go; I will go. Bon voyage kids, grandpa loves you.

The Bridal Party Wore Flip-Flops

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Growing up during the fifties and early sixties I was present at the dawning of a new dress code in America. Prior to the all out assault on America’s dress code by the hippie culture of the sixties, people were expected to wear clothes appropriate for the occasion. Men and women wore suits and dresses to church, funerals and weddings. Most white collar work places, were just that, they required a white dress shirt and tie. School children were required to be clean and neat; slacks and a shirt for the boys, skirt and blouse for the girls and hair for all was to be clean and combed in a suitable style. All that is a thing of the past and I have pretty much adjusted to today‘s trend toward casual dress. Pretty much but not completely. I still wear a coat and tie to a job interview, a practice that at times can be awkward and disconcerting. For instance I had an interview with a local grocery chain a few years ago. Not wanting to overdress I decided to wear a sport coat and tie instead of my best suit. When I arrived for the interview I was ushered into an office where a young lady introduced herself as the director of human resources for the company. I was quickly taken aback by her appearance. She was wearing jeans and a shirt that looked like they had been ironed with a warm rock. Her hair was a mess and worst of all she was wearing flip-flops. I HATE FLIP-FLOPS! As soon as I saw the appearance of this sorry excuse for a director of human resources I knew I didn’t stand a chance of even being hired for the exalted position of cart boy.

Now I fully realize that business casual is the new dress-up attire. And I must admit that the dress code of the fifties could be a bit stifling . For instance showing up for the first day of high school in jeans, sneakers and t-shirt with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in my sleeve earned me a trip to detention. Four years later during my senior year that attire with the exception of the Lucky Strikes was accepted attire. But no one – absolutely no one would be caught out in public wearing flip-flops. The only place flip-flops were acceptable was in the shower after gym or football practice. To put it bluntly flip-flops are really shower shoes; cheap, inexpensive and ugly! The hippie culture of the sixties exposed the youth of America to these scions of slovenly dress and they have slowly come to be accepted attire for all occasions, and I do mean all occasions. I recently attended a wedding where against my inclination to wear a suit I decided to wear business casual; a nice pair of black dress slacks that just broke a crease over my newly shined wingtips and an expensive golf shirt. It was a good thing I dressed like that because as I took my seat I noticed that the only men wearing a coat and tie were the groom and the best man. The other groomsmen who were wearing a dress shirt and tie but no jacket.

After the groom and his cohorts took their place the music started and all eyes turned to the rear. As the bridesmaids started down the aisle in their obligatory one use only, and thankfully so bridesmaid dresses I thought I heard a dissonance in the somewhat solemn music. At first I couldn’t figure out what was causing what seemed to be an out of place rhythm, a nerve end irritating out of place syncopation. DA DA – FLAP! DA DA – FLAP! I became more and more curious as to what was disrupting the music‘s intended rhythm . As the first bridesmaid reached the aisle where I was sitting I looked down and immediately the mystery was solved. THE BRIDAL PARTY WAS WEARING FLIP-FLOPS! This abomination of anatomical attire had invaded one of society’s most solemn and sacrosanct rites of passage. It was all I could do to keep  from shouting out my feelings about the wearing of shower shoes at a wedding. Now I grant you these flip-flops were rather fancy, brightly colored and adorned with brightly colored beads. And they most likely were quite expensive, but still they were the lowest common denominator of the podiatry pyramid. When the bride made her entrance, she also had these abominations adorning her feet but fortunately as she slowly made her way down the aisle her flap – flap – flap was barely audible. The ceremony was nice and I was genuinely happy for the bride and groom. As the minister pronounced them husband and wife, they kissed and were presented to the audience as officially married. On signal the director of music (DJ) played a very nice quick tempo trumpet concerto  and the bridal party began its exit. This time the music was accompanied by a chorus of harshly staccatoed FLAPITY-FLAP! FLAPITY-FLAPITY FLAP! The bridal party couldn’t make its exit fast enough for me.

While flip-flops now seem to be accepted attire in schools, business, and in society’s most sacred rituals I know that I must capitulate and come to terms with their existence. However there is one occasion where I feel they are totally unacceptable – that is at funerals. In the past few weeks I have attended the funerals of two close friends. At the calling hours for both I noticed several women wearing flip-flops. It wasn’t just young women and teenagers who wore these abominations. They were also worn by several women of age exposing for all to see their gnarly, calloused feet, bunions and all. I want one and all to know that if you wear flip-flops to my funeral I will do my best to haunt you for the rest of your life. If my spirit is standing aside my coffin or if it hasn’t yet left my body and I hear the cacophony rubber meeting heel, I will do my best to rise from the dead and beat you severely about the head with your flip-flops.

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