Save the Post Office

When I was growing up in Monett, MO in the late fifties, I had a job selling Grit newspapers. I had inherited the route from my cousin, Kyle. He had developed a customer base that covered the entire town, so on Friday after school, I’d get on my bike and start delivering the papers that had been dropped off at my house the previous afternoon by the postman (in those days, there weren’t any female postal carriers in Monett, as far as I know). I had 65 papers to distribute before noon on Saturday, because I had to get to the post office by then and purchase a postal money order to send to the Grit headquarters in Pennsylvania. Usually, in addition to the money order, I’d buy the latest stamps to add to my collection. In 1960, the price of a stamp was four cents and I got a nickel for every newspaper I sold. If I had had a good week collecting from my customers, I might also buy a “plate block” of stamps, a special 4-stamp set that had the number of the plate that was used to print the stamps in the margin. Plate blocks were, and are, a prized specimen for collectors. I recently pulled out the boxes of stamps and my old stamp albums and found that all those plate blocks I bought long ago are missing. Like my coin collection, I probably broke them up and used them on letters when I no longer thought I’d need them.

Because I was in the post office every week, I got to know the clerks and they would occasionally save a nice set of stamps for me, even though there were several other stamp collectors in my town at that time. Some of them were my friends. One of them, Stanley Clark, lived just a few doors down the street. His father owned a second-hand store and every now and then, he would acquire a bunch stamps at an auction or from someone who was selling household items. Stanley and I would pour through those, hoping to find an “inverted Jenny” or a “Penny Black,” both the Holy Grails of stamp collecting. Of course, we never did, but we always knew that one day one would turn up.

The post office and the public library were the two most sacred spaces for me in Monett. Like I said, I visited the one every Saturday, and most Saturdays, I’d stop by the other one on the way home. I’d fill my bicycle basket with books and records, and the stamps I’d purchase. Those experiences gave me a love for reading and an excellent knowledge of geography and history. I learned where Bhutan and Eritrea and Liechtenstein are from my stamp collection. Sadly, many of the countries I liked best then, because of their stamps, no longer exist, or they have changed their names because, happily, they gained their independence from their European colonizers. Ever hear of North Ingermanland or Ponta Delgada? If you are an avid stamp collector, you probably have.

All this is to say that the United States Postal Service was an important part of my life growing up and continues to be so, especially now. Postal workers have been some of the true heroes during this pandemic. We can allow a campaign crony of Donald Trump to destroy it. The post office is essential to democracy. Woody Guthrie knew who to fight against.

SAVE THE POST OFFICE

A name is important

A couple of days ago I wrote about my adventure in trying to upgrade my iPod 3rd gen to be able to play the latest update of TuneIn Radio so we could listen to WFMT through a radio that has a dock for the iPod. Failing to do so, I ordered an Echo Dot from Amazon (on sale for $29 at the time; it has since gone back to the original price of $49; got it just at the right time). It arrived Monday and I set it up yesterday, so I’m figuring out what Alexa will do.

The first request I made, of course, was “Alexa, play WFMT.” She responded right away and said “Playing WFMT through TuneIn Radio.” Perfect. I then experimented with asking her to raise and lower the volume. No problem.

This morning, however, when I got up and started the coffee, after turning on WFMT, I asked, “Alexa, what kind of a day is it going to be?” She answered: “Tomorrow is going to be an apple pie type of day.” Well, I should have asked what today is going to be, I guess.

Next, I asked who George McGovern’s running mate was in 1972. Alexa seems to know more about history than today’s weather and her reply was “George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 was Sargent Shriver.” Absolutely correct.

For a joke, I asked Siri to tell Alexa to turn down the music, and Siri said, “Reduce volume of media.” Bingo! So Siri and Alexa can talk to each other. But what about the Google assistant?

“Alexa, what’s the Google assistant’s name?”

“The Google assistant does not have a name,” Alexa responded.

Well, I think that’s just sad. We are supposed to have a programmable thermostat installed tomorrow and if it’s a Nest, it will be Google-powered and voice activated, I think. If so, I’m going to start calling the assistant Max. A name is important, especially in the virtual world these days. Of course, I can always ask Siri or Alexa to turn up the heat or turn down the air conditioning. They’ll work it out with Max.

Frisco Chili

My grandfather was an engineer for the Frisco Railroad in southwest Missouri. Every day, he’d get in the cab of his locomotive and haul freight and passengers between Monett and other towns in southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma, northwestern Arkansas and southwest Missouri. I got to ride with him a couple of times on those trips and loved to go down to the “yards” where he worked. In those days, kids could sneak into the area or roam around if they knew the “right people.” My grandfather was one of the “right people.”

When he finished his shift, he loved to cook and this was one of his recipes. He said he got it from the cook in the dining car, back when there used to be passenger service on the line, before AMTRAK. Of course, it was made in much bigger quantities to serve the travelers then.

I don’t know exactly when I came by this recipe. I’m not sure it’s written down anywhere, although it might be stuck in the papers I have saved over the years. Most likely, it’s just residing in my memory, along with odds and ends of other things I’ve been carrying around in there. I imagine I’ve modified this many times from what I do remember that he told me.

My grandfather always seemed to have a pot of soup on the stove when I went to visit, so I image the beans in his chili were ones that were left over from other meals. I don’t actually remember him putting dark beer in his chili; I think he drank Schlitz or Falstaff most of the time, and those aren’t dark, that’s for sure. The tomatoes would have come from his garden, as would the onion and herbs. He was a good gardener, having raised six kids during the Depression. I always remember rows and rows of beans and corn and potatoes and greens and tomatoes in his garden, in addition to the irises he grew. He was an avid iris collector and I managed to save some from his garden after he and my grandmother had passed. I’ve planted and replanted those at seven or eight houses over the years. Even though we live in an apartment complex now, I have a couple of window boxes filled with iris.

Well, so here’s the recipe, as he passed it along and as it has been slightly tweaked each time it has been made. I hope you enjoy.

1 lb ground chuck
1 lb ground sirloin
1 T. oil
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can chicken broth
1/2 bottle dark beer (drink the rest while you prepare the chili)
2 cans navy beans, drained and rinsed
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 T. cumin
1 T. ground chili powder
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried parley
2 T. brown sugar
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground pepper

In a dutch oven or large pot, heat the oil and cook the onion until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute, then add the chuck and sirloin. Without stirring or breaking up the meat, let it get a bit crispy on the bottom. Break up the meat and continue cooking until it is thoroughly browned. Add the cumin, chili powder, basil, parley, salt, and pepper and mix. Add the tomatoes, broth, and beans and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add brown sugar and ketchup. Simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally.

Notes: The secret ingredient in this recipe, of course, is the brown sugar, which give the chili a slightly sweet flavor to compliment the cumin and ground chili powder. It’s also important to drain and rinse the beans before you add them so the chili doesn’t get “muddy.”

How I created it

This is a photo of a piece I’ve entered in the InterUrban ArtHouse “12 x 12” show, which begins May 17 in Overland Park, Kansas.

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I thought I’d take you through the steps that it took to arrive at this stage. These things don’t just create themselves, you know. Well, in a way, they do, but that’s another story.

Anyway, this piece is acrylic and paper mache on canvas. The dimensions of the entries in the show were required to be 12” x 12”. All media were accepted: painting, sculpture, photography, prints. I’ve done painting on canvas, paper and hardboard before, but this is the first time I’ve attempted to use paper mache.

There are lots of formulae for paper mache, but I decided to use something called Elmer’s Art Paste as the “glue” for the paper mache.

Elmer's Art Past

After doing some research, I concluded that this is maybe the least problematic of the types of glue commonly used to make paper mache, not having the issues with mold that flour and water has, for example. Plus it is inexpensive. A 2 oz. package cost $5 and it makes enough for lots and lots of paper mache. An ounce makes about two quarts of the stuff and I used maybe a fifth of that for the three pieces I created. Testimonials on YouTube said that the stuff lasts nearly forever after it’s mixed, so I’ve got enough for the foreseeable future.

Every time I shred a bunch of paper, I always think that there must be a better end for it than just going to the landfill or recycling station. I just finished shredding several years worth of old tax forms and it occurred to me that those would a great base for this project.

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I soaked a bunch of the paper for a couple of days, shredded it even finer with my electric mixing wand, and squeezed out the water. Here’s what it looked like compressed as much as I could.

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These I “decompressed” and mixed with the glue to make a kind of thick paste, which I applied to the canvasses. Here’s photo of what that looked like.

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Initially, I formed the shape by hand and then used trowels and an old knife to create the ridges and indentations. I’ve done this a lot with plaster on hardboard and that gives a much smoother finish, but I like the texture that the paper mache produced. After a couple of coats of gesso to seal the the surface, I started applying the layers of acrylic. The base layer was a cadmium yellow to highlight the indentations.

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Next came mixture of yellow and Windsor blue to create a blue-green undercoat.

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I applied several mixtures of cad yellow, raw umber, Windsor blue and white to get the final overall effect and followed that with a wash of purple.

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One of the challenges of non-objective art is knowing when to stop painting. The temptation is always to do just a little bit more. “Maybe that area needs a little more blue or a streak of red.” “What would more yellow look like over there?” As the Hollies sang, “Stop, Stop, Stop.”

This piece (entitled “More by Less” from a letter to Time magazine by an architectural critic who was praising a review of a New York building) will be available for $100 at the show. I hope you will be able to join us.