Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How I Won the Football Pool

How I Won the Football Pool
As I walked into city hall for a Monday night council meeting, Richard, our Public Works Director, said to me, “Did you know you are tied with Reece for first place in the football pool this week? Who wins depends on the final score of the Green Bay game tonight.” This news excited me. Week after week, I had come close, tied for second place with two or three other people. Tied for second is meaningless. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Last year I never came close to winning. Week after week I contributed my two dollars to the football winner’s fund. It was discouraging. So this year I determined on a strategy, a method, if you will. It was “make” or “break” time. I figured if I didn’t win at least once this year, then I would withdraw from donating my money to the guys.

These men take the football pool seriously. They actually watch the games. They study statistics. They compute probabilities. They know if a team’s best quarterback is nursing an injury. They note if a team’s head coach is involved in a scandal, or when a valuable player is traded, or if the pizza delivery is late. Although they may think I am sitting in my corner filing my nails, I pay attention to everything they say and do. What I have noticed is that after all their conjuring, they vote for their favorite teams.

One man always avoids selecting a team from any town beginning with the letter “C”. How is that for the scientific male mind? Kim comes to coffee with his picks on a sheet of paper in his shirt pocket. I presume that is what is on the paper. For all I know it’s his wife’s grocery list, for he takes a minimum of half an hour to mark his teams, all with great frowning and mumbling and choosing and erasing and choosing again. The other men are quite voluble about who should win and who should have won and why, but, when it comes their turn to mark the paper, they huddle over it like it is a secret ballot.

I raced home after the council meeting that Monday night. I called a friend. “What is the score?” I asked him. If Green Bay scored over forty points, I would be the winner.

“How did you know I am watching the game?” he countered.

“Who is winning? I gotta know the score. What quarter is it?” I battered him with questions.

David has known me for years. He figures I have not watched an entire football game in my life. That is not true. Well, maybe it is. “You must have some heavy money riding on this game,” he guessed.

“Just let me know the score. Then call me back when my team scores again.”

He told me to set my phone on speaker function and gave me a play by play. When Green Bay scored another touchdown, I let out a shriek.

“Sounds like you won,” he said.

The next morning I floated into the city shop at the pre-workday coffee hour to pick up my winnings. Did I hear any hearty congratulations? No. I was assailed with “I suppose you came to gloat?” “We generously gave of our good advice and now she is going to lord it over us.” “You sure don’t do humble well.” “This is what we get when we let women in the pool.”

I offered to teach a workshop on my methods. The response was a chorus of boos and hisses. But I will share my genius with you. First I wait until most of the men have made their choices. I average the results. Then I look to see if the favored team is “home” or “away”. I add that into my computations. I weigh other factors. For example, I always choose Green Bay because I spent several enjoyable weeks in Wisconsin many years ago and Green Bay is in Wisconsin. I select Seattle out of misguided loyalty to my old stomping grounds. If, after all this, I still have doubts over which city’s team to pick, I pretend I have to take a trip to one or the other. The city I choose to visit determines the team I mark. And, of course, womanly intuition adds an important element to the mix. That, however, cannot be taught.

Winning is a powerful feeling, a fever. I am hooked. I will hone my best strategies. I will perfect my skills. I intend to win and win and win again.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 23, 2011

My Aunt Dixie and the Kentucky Jam Cake

My Aunt Dixie and the Kentucky Jam Cake
“It is most logical,” I said out loud to myself while snipping the recipe for Kentucky Jam Cake from the Havre Daily News. You have to understand that I never clip recipes from newspapers or magazines. I have a few treasured cookbooks; some of which I seldom open, some with pages so spattered with batter or stained with vanilla that one can hardly read the directions. No matter, I hardly ever follow the directions anyway. I regard a recipe as a guide. The genius of the dish is up to me.

The logic that moved me to cut out this particular recipe began with my Aunt Dixie. Aunt Dixie bakes the best cakes ever baked. At family reunions, and my family reunions revolve around mountains of good food, everybody lines up for a slice of Aunt Dixie’s cake, whether she brought chocolate butter cake, or caramel, or ginger spice, or hickory nut or plain old homemade angel food. It is a simple fact; nobody tops Aunt Dixie’s cakes. My favorite is her coconut cake. She heaps it high with boiled icing and sprinkles it liberally with shredded coconut.

Here’s my reasoning: Aunt Dixie bakes the best cakes. Aunt Dixie lives in Louisville, Kentucky. This recipe I am cutting out of the newspaper is Kentucky Jam Cake. Therefore this cake must be good. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Logical?

The recipe sat on my kitchen counter for a couple weeks. I wanted to make the cake but I just didn’t have time. I moved the clipping from here to there and back again as I needed the space. But I never threw it away. How could I toss the “Aunt Dixie” connection into the trash? Finally, Saturday morning I figured I could carve time out of my day to bake a cake. I dumped a can of pineapple over a cup of Craisins to soak and went about my business. (The recipe calls for raisins, but as I said, a recipe is a guide, not a dictator.) At eight-thirty Saturday evening I was finally ready to mix my cake. This is a high maintenance cake, requiring several bowls and spoons and much mixing, dumping, blending, seasoning, and folding. It calls for two sticks of butter and five eggs and more ingredients than it took God to create the earth. I dumped in a cup of blackberry jam and stirred it around. The batter looked disgusting. I hoped I would not have to throw the whole mess out.

Nevertheless, I filled my cake pan and slid it into the heated oven. The recipe called for baking sixty minutes. That can’t be right, I thought, as I set my timer for forty. At forty minutes I opened the oven door and peeked. I gently closed the door and set the timer for an additional twenty minutes. When, at ten thirty that evening, I pulled the cake from the oven, the smell was overpoweringly heavenly. I gathered all my resolve and resisted cutting into the warm cake right then and there.

Sunday morning, contemplating my cooled cake which still exuded an irresistible smell, I read the frosting recipe, discarded it and made my own. I confess to cutting a hunk for breakfast with my morning coffee. The flavors exploded in my mouth, a perfect blend. I immediately determined that this cake will become my own special holiday cake. It is the cake I will bake for family reunions. I will take it to pot lucks. Aunt Dixie would be proud.

Friends came that afternoon for spaghetti dinner. I surprised them with my Made-in-Montana Kentucky Jam Cake. “This is so good, so dense, all these flavors—what is in it?” one of the women asked me. Modestly, I lowered my eyes, and like God when he created the world, I answered, “Oh, not much. Just a little thing I threw together.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 10, 2011

Victory by a Landslide

Victory by a Landslide
Back when I lived in Washington, a theatre group of which I was a member met every Tuesday morning for breakfast at Sheila’s By the Bay, a local cafĂ©. That’s where we made the day-to-day decisions of running our theatre. And we also discussed a wide range of current topics. One morning Gayle, a retired government spook, leaned across the table and said, “Sondra, you are the most apolitical person I know.”

“Why, thank you,” I replied. I was pleased to accept the compliment and to ignore the hint of frustration in Gayle’s voice. So it is hard for me to explain how I have ended up in city government.

It was five years ago in January. I had just arrived in town. Unopened boxes cluttered my living room, rows of paint cans lined the floor, lighting fixtures gathered sawdust while waiting to be hung, and a miter saw held court in the middle of the dining room table.

I wanted to get involved in my new community as soon as possible. I believe in community service. So I responded to a notice in the post office and wrote a letter of interest about filling a city council vacancy.

I considered my letter to be a simple test run. No way was I, a stranger in town, going to be chosen to fill a vacant council seat. Also, I knew nothing of city government. Frankly, I had about as much interest as the average citizen, which seems to be very little indeed. (I find that people expect things to run well and complain when they don’t.) So, my letter was an exercise, practice until something more interesting came along.

It was the evening of the council meeting. I did not realize I was supposed to be at city hall. I had just sat down to dinner with guests when the phone rang. It was the mayor. “Aren’t you coming? We are waiting for you. We have to choose the new councilperson before we can hold the meeting.”

“Oops, I mean, of course. I’ll be there in four minutes,” I said while I struggled into my coat, ran a comb through my hair and slammed out the door.

Oh, dear. Things did not go the way they were supposed to. A half hour later, I found myself raising my hand, promising to do my duty to the best of my ability and seated in a chair behind the long table. The meeting started. I was terrified. I voted on things I had no notion of at all.
This would not do. That week I began my intensive education into city government. My first six months in office I felt like I didn’t understand a thing. I listened a lot. I read a lot. The more I read, the more interested I got. I attended a wide range of meetings and trainings. The next six months I knew enough to begin asking questions. By the following year I dubbed myself the Queen of Dumb Questions. I have proudly held that honorable title ever since.

When the year of my appointment was up, I had become fascinated with city government and eager to learn more. So I ran for election. I am not a political-type person. To be in city government in our small town is very much a volunteer in-service position. I did not come to town to “change things” nor to “make things run the way they did back where I come from” nor to recreate life “the way it used to be when I grew up around here”.

Yet this year when my term was due to expire, I had a hard time making the decision to run again. Maybe, I thought, five years is long enough for me. I mulled it over. I talked with a lot of people. I even tried to convince a couple other citizens into running. Both of them responded, “Better you than me.” In the end, I drove to the court house in Chinook and registered to run.

I like the people I serve with. I feel we make a good team, despite the rolling of eyeballs when I say something like, “I’ve been thinking. . .” What we do makes a difference. And, how else would I get to meet stimulating people throughout the state, many of whom have become friends.

So I am proud to announce that last Tuesday on Election Day I won the race for my council seat by a landslide.

Oh, I forgot to mention. I ran unopposed.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 17, 2011

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Mystical Experience with Birds and Other Flying Objects

My Mystical Experience with Birds and Other Flying Objects
I consider myself to be a somewhat mystical person. Some days I am opti-mystic and other times I revert to pessi-mystic.

Last Friday I drove to Conrad to visit friends. It was a Friday much like any other Friday. I had not even crossed the county line when a gull flew at me, skirted my windshield and flew on. I thought it looked me in the eye as it flew across the hood.

I have long had a special relationship to many birds, but especially crows. Once when I had been having a rough day and was driving along in a dark mood, thinking grumbling thoughts, a clownish looking crow flew in front of my van and paused directly in front of my windshield. The crow did not try to get out of my way, but as I drove down the road, stayed ahead of me for several moments. Then it flipped and flew upside down for nearly thirty seconds, flipped back up, ruffled its wings, winked at me, and flew out of sight. I got the message. This crow told me to lighten up, to play. I learned my lesson.

Another time, at Pacific Beach, I was walking along the edge of the winter surf, when a flock of sandpipers performed for me. In perfect unison, they turned and dipped, each little bird a part of the larger whole. I felt the same way I feel when sitting in Benaroya Hall, watching and listening to the Seattle Symphony. The sandpipers made a living picture of the symphonic sounds. Their lesson—look for the music in all things.

So last Friday I paid attention to my gull friend. Its message wasn’t clear to me, but it seemed to be sending a warning. Then as I passed the outskirts of Chester, a magpie flew at me with a frown, turned at the last second, and also dashed across my windshield. I always drive with an eye to wildlife alongside the road, but now I
felt I needed to be extra alert, not only to animals but to all things on the road.

After my visit with my Conrad friends, Jesse and Sharon, I was not fifteen miles out of town headed back to Shelby, when a hawk flew up and across my windshield and grimaced, same left to right pattern as the gull and the magpie. I thanked the hawk for reminding me to be cautious but, I admit, I felt apprehensive. This was not a “feel-good” message. I drove on, scanning the roadsides as well as the road to the front of me and behind. My trip was uneventful all the way to Havre, where I stopped at the IGA to buy Halloween candy for the little neighborhood spooks and my own big spook sweet tooth.

Nightfall slowly descended as I pulled out of Havre, and by the time I passed Zurich, it was nearly dark. I was about six miles from home, when, as a pick-up truck coming from the opposite direction passed me, something hit the left side of my van with a hard thunk. I pulled into the first farm lane and got out to check my front end. It was banged up with missing parts, but I could still drive. I noticed that the pick-up driver had also stopped. Before I could go back to see if he had been hit, he took off.

So I’ll never know what hit me. It’s a mystery. Maybe an animal had unwisely chosen that moment to stroll down the center line of the highway. Perhaps a raccoon. Or a pheasant. Or a grouse. If I were being pessi-mystic, I might think the flying object was something the other driver threw from his vehicle—a cigarette butt? A beer bottle? A loaded diaper? A dead refrigerator. I’ll never know.

I am opti-mystically grateful for my feathered friends, the gull, the magpie and the hawk, who warned me to be alert, to hold the wheel steady when I saw the brief flicker of motion and felt the thunk of impact. Beyond that, it is my own mystical mystery. Thankfully, I was not hurt. My vehicle is drivable. The damage is fixable. To my feathered friends, my thanks.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 3, 2011