Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

It might seem odd to review a children’s book first published in 1939. I read it as a kid, and for some reason it stayed with me. Actually I know the reason. The story is essentially a nice one, but the last three pages of this book reveal a bizarre ending that troubles and haunts me to this day.

What? You ask. A harmless kids’ book? Yes. I will explain.

For those who have not read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (spoilers ahead) it’s the story of Mike, a man who operates a huge an outdated piece of machinery called a steam shovel. But she has a name, and it’s Mary Anne. The shovel has a face with vaguely feminine eyes, does not speak, and towers over her partner.


The pair have had a long partnership digging all manner of canals, roads, foundations and airports, and is now seen scouring the countryside in search of work. But times have changed in the earth moving biz, and everyone wants the newfangled gas, electric and diesel machines to dish the dirt.

“No Steam Shovels Wanted” reads one sign, with sad-faced Mike and Mary Anne turning away from yet another worksite.

Finally, Mike hears of a opportunity through the excavation pipeline. The town of Popperville is building a new town hall, which means it needs a cellar. Mike and Mary Anne to the rescue!

Mary Anne Smile

Not so fast, says the meanest town selectman, Henry B. Swap. But a deal is worked out; if Mike and his steam shovel can do the job in just one day, Mike gets paid. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t. Boo, hiss, Henry B. Swap.

Mike and Mary Anne are willing, though, and with the entire town and several other towns watching, they git-er-done by sunset. Cheers of relief sweep across the crowds until a small, blonde boy notices something: Mike has neglected to build an exit ramp out of his deep, freshly made hole. He and Mary Anne are stuck, their payment forfeited.

Mike & Mary Ann Wave

The onlookers scratch their heads and wonder what to do, when the boy speaks up again. Leave ’em both down there and build the town hall over them. Mike can be the new building’s janitor, and Mary Anne can be turned into a furnace.

A furnace.

Everyone present, including Mike, thinks this is a fine idea. Nobody asks Mary Anne, but her bland smile suggests her assent. The words and pictures from here paint a macabre picture; a man and his machine becoming trapped in a prison of their own making. Did Mary Anne really understand this devil’s deal, or only after it was too late?


I have zero sympathy for Mike. He has two good legs and (I assume) can leave the basement at any time. But Mary Anne is stuck. She can’t go for coffee, smell the wildflowers, or ramble the hilly countryside. All she can do is sit in her musty dungeon, year after year, with Mike, whose job duties seem to consist of pipe-smoking in a chair and telling stories to the occasional visitor.

In my mind they are still down there, forgotten, cobwebbed, frozen in time. Mike who? Mary Anne who? It’s not too late, Mary Anne! Get out, get out while you can!

Mary Ann in Tunnel

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We Kind Of Need Our Thumbs

As I came crashing down from my bike to the pavement, I knew I was in trouble. I must have smashed my right thumb as I landed, because the thumbnail started to bleed. A fellow rider gave me a Band-Aid, I doctored myself and started to head back to my car.

A bad way to end a group bike ride, but there was no other option. My handlebars were askew and my chain was off – I knew from experience how hard it was to get back on. My car was only a mile away.

Back in the parking lot, I assessed the damage. Thumbnail still bleeding, bruises to both legs, cuts on three fingers. Also, my glasses were bent way out of shape; my helmet must have pushed them. My thumb didn’t feel great, but it didn’t seem worth a visit to the ER. I drove home, feeling bad but also lucky. It could have been much worse.

In the days following, the cuts healed, the bruises lost their color, and the glasses got adjusted. My thumb? It had swollen to the size of an Italian sausage. And although the pain was manageable, any number of mundane actions, like pulling up my socks, sent a fiery pain through my thumb.

Sore Thumb

Suddenly, simple things like turning the key in the ignition, lifting a glass or box of cereal, or pulling open a drawer, sent my nerves into overdrive. What the hell was happening?

I turned to my longtime family doctor, Robb Stidwill, for the answer.

“You have Gamekeeper’s Thumb, also known as Skier’s Thumb. The ligament has torn away from the bone and that means less grip strength.”

“So what do I do about it?”

“Usually surgery can correct it. Possibly a cast or brace. I want you to get it x-rayed and also talk to an orthopedic surgeon. Today.”

Wow, I thought. All this for falling off a bike. I’m not a skier, or a gamekeeper, just a guy who fell off his bike. My face must have fallen, and the doctor noticed.

“Don’t look so worried. It’s fixable, but time is of the essence. If it were me, I’d see someone very soon.”


So I got the x-rays, but the orthopedic office hadn’t called. I called them but was put on hold. It was late afternoon on a Friday. I decided to call the next Monday and made an appointment for the next day.

The orthopedic office was very busy and seemingly chaotic. I talked to four different staff members before seeing the doctor, many of them asking me the same questions. Finally the surgeon himself stopped by, still dressed in scrubs. Busy guy, I thought.

Here’s the gist of what he said: Surgery, surgery, surgery. I was talking to a surgeon; what else was he gonna recommend?

So the surgery is set for Tuesday, July 18. I’m nervous about it, but I really want to get back to normal.

The way to do that is to reconnect the ligament, wear a cast, and then a brace, for six weeks, followed by physical therapy.

I know all this is necessary. Like I told a co-worker, we kind of need our thumbs. Without them we’re basically cats and dogs.

To be continued…

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If you have Netflix, or live in Canada, you probably know about Heartland. I didn’t until recently. To my mind, it’s the perfect show.

First, the theme song, “Dreamer” by Jenn Grant. A simple guitar riff is joined by a cello, then attains a hypnotic, almost ancient Celtic quality. The music and visuals set the mood; Western Rockies, horses, the cast, more horses, more scenery. A crash of cymbals, and then on to the show.

Heartland sisters fence

Heartland used to be a cattle ranch, we are told. But Jack, the owner, is getting along in years, and now it’s a place to train and heal horses. His granddaughter Amy handles this chore, assisted by her older sister Lou. Amy and Lou’s parents divorced many years before, so Jack helped raise them.

Marion, the girls’ mom, dies in the first episode. Ty, a young man who Marion hired, shows up after the tragedy and helps Amy with her horse work. It’s the start of a very long term relationship.

Lou had left the nest in recent years, to get her MBA and work in New York City. She comes back to Heartland though and decides to stay; untangling years of finances and turning the ranch into a revenue producer. She even builds a dude ranch on the property, much to Jack’s dismay.

A tween neighbor girl, Mallory, provides the comic relief. She practically lives at the ranch and adopts one of the horses, named Copper. She will happily point out the elephant in any room and blurt out what everyone is thinking. “Mallory!” someone will inevitably say.

Each episode is horse related. Everything you can do with a horse is covered here. All of their problems are tended to by Amy, sometimes called the Miracle Girl. With both comedic and dramatic touches, problems are solved, lives improved, work continues.

As a famous movie tagline once said, a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.

But what about Amy and Lou’s dad? After a ten year disappearance, Tim re-enters their lives and starts the long, painful process of reconciliation.

Heartland smiles

There are other characters. Amy’s best friend Soraya works at Maggie’s Diner, a hangout for the entire town of Hudson, Alberta. And there has to be a blonde mean girl; her name is Ashley. (She becomes nicer over time.) Scott is the local veterinarian who once dated Lou. Jack finds love with a horsey woman named Lisa. Will they ride into the sunset?

Every character is just right, and all form an ideal ensemble.

Heartland Cast

You gotta see this show. For me, it’s completely relaxing. I want to live in this world, not on a farm or ranch exactly, but just….there. The idea of it is appealing.

The best part is, here in my living room, all I have to do is watch. I don’t have to feed and water, perform the night check, or clean up the horse sh…er, manure. Perfect.

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The Last Resort?

Back in late April, my girlfriend Ivone and I took a trip to the Dominican Republic. We stayed at a nice resort (Lifestyle Holidays in Puerto Plata), and had a great time. For the most part.

We had never done this before, and didn’t know the drill. Now we do. I just wish that the April Me could have had a conversation with Future Me, so that I’d have the low down and know what to expect.


Perhaps something like this…

April Me: So wow, an all inclusive resort in a tropical setting. You lucky dog. I’ll bet it was great. Just check in, grab a cold drink, and relax!

Future Me: Not exactly. The check in by itself took about 30 minutes, including the 15 minutes or so the desk clerk disappeared with our passports. Why did he want our passports? He never said. Anyway we stood there in this noisy, sweltering lobby wearing our warm Northern clothes, just dying to get to our room.

AM: Yeah, but then the vacation really started! You lucky dog.

FM: Then it was a five minute trudge to our room. The resort was huge. It was a hot muggy day, and when we entered our place, it was cool and clammy. It stayed that way for the next six days.

AM: But you could turn off the air conditioner, right?

FM: I tried. But it just kept blasting, like a living thing. And the room never felt dry.

AM: Ah, but the sun. You could dry out, outside.

FM: Sort of. We did spend lots of time in the sun, except for Day 2 when it rained.

AM: So what did you do on Day 1?

FML: Settled in, went to get lunch, walked to the beach, and finally got that drink.cartoon-outlined-shipwrecked-guy-on-a-tropical-island-by-ron-leishman-11775

AM: Yay. Gin and tonic, right?

FM: You got it. But I arrived at the poolside bar just as it was closing, and the bartender wasn’t too happy about it. Also I didn’t tip him.

AM: So what? All-Inclusive! Leave your wallet at home! I’ve heard the ads.

FM: The ads are wrong. You never leave your wallet at home. Anytime someone willingly does something for you, they want a tip. They expect a tip. You have to tip. One guy told me the resort does not pay him; he lives on tips. He had a family to feed.

AM: I don’t believe it.

FM: And another guy grabbed my bag at the airport, carried it twenty feet, and stared at my hand until I gave him a small tip. The nerve.

AM: I wouldn’t have tipped.

FM: You would have. In fact, you did.

AM: Okay. Hey, those beaches looked spectacular on the website. Were they?

FM: They weren’t bad. A little narrow though, but you could walk quite a distance, and we did. Here’s the thing though – to get there you had to run an obstacle course, involving many detours and gates. You get the feeling they want you to stay off the beach.


AM: That’s crazy. Why?

FM: The resort is divided into little compounds, and the beach has access to all of them. We were considered riff raff (blue bracelets) and were not allowed into Yellow Bracelet Land. Something to do with levels of membership.

AM: That sucks. No one wants to feel like riff raff.

FM: Agreed. So we began to learn where we couldn’t go, and where we could. A stern security guard would remind us if we forgot.

AM: Were the rest of the staff friendly?

FM: Yes and no. Every day after leaving breakfast (only one way out) we ran into a wall of “concierges” – natives with khaki uniforms, clipboards and pith helmets. They approached everyone with an offer for a presentation and tour of the facilities. It sounded like a sales pitch to me, so I asked Leo, who had attached himself to us. “No, no sale pitch! Just come with me, what’s your room number?” We had nothing else planned, so we went.

AM: Let me guess. It was a sales pitch.

FM: Affirmative. The guy at the sales office was disgusted with us, since we were not willing to purchase a higher level of membership. I told him I had no intention of buying anything, in fact the whole place was starting to feel like prison to me. “If you are not ready to purchase, why did you come here?” he said, harshly. “You should have just said no to the concierge.”

AM: Wow. Doesn’t sound like first class treatment.

FM: Nope. And the lady in Guest Services was nice. But there was only one of her, and about ten people waiting for her at all times.

AM: What were they waiting for?

FM: Dinner reservations. You couldn’t just pick up the phone, you had to go through her. And every couple she spoke to required a good 5-10 minutes. Without dinner reservations, you had to use the buffet place. Not bad, but you kind of wanted to check out the various restaurants located around the resort.


AM: You lucky dog.

FM: I wish you’d stop saying that.

AM: So you have your meals, your pools, long walks on the beach, and a cold beverage whenever you want. And you never had to leave the place.

FM: But we did leave it – twice. Would have gone stir crazy otherwise. We did side trips to the downtown area and went on a nature hike.

AM: Were they hard to arrange?

FM: Arrange, no. Pay for, yes. The Excursion people wanted payment up front, in cash. It was like they expected every visitor to have hundreds of dollars on them. I ended up going to a bank, using my credit card to buy pesos and then convert them to dollars. For a fee of course.

AM: What a pain. They wouldn’t just take your credit card?

FM: Don’t make me laugh. I might never stop.

AM: Our sister and her family were there the same time as us. It must have been great to see her.

FM: Oh, it was. Shame we never got to eat dinner together.

AM: What? Not once in six nights?

FM: Nope. You see, we had the blue bracelets and they had yellow bracelets…

AM: You’re kidding! What the hell…?

FM: Precisely. Just for the record though, we had a super time. The weather was mostly good, warm to hot, and sunny, like we expected. The food was awesome. My first banana daiquiri was a mind-blowing taste sensation. Our bartenders and chambermaids became our friends. The beach was the beach. Palm trees and exotic birds. The side trips we will always remember.

AM: So, you’d do it again? The whole resort thing?

FM: Get back to me…in the future.

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Exploring Puerto Plata

Ivone and I had been in the Dominican Republic, or as my t-shirt says, ‘Republica Dominicana’, for two whole days. We’d frolicked in the clear blue ocean, walked the beaches, ate like kings and queens, and bellied up to a few bars. Resort life was sweet. Something, though, was pulling at us.

It was time to explore.

Which is how we found ourselves boarding a small bus with several other turistas. Destination: Cable cars and the sights of downtown Puerto Plata. This city was where our resort was located, but earlier we had passed through the real place. It was large, different, kind of scary looking. It would have been daunting to try this on our own, so we signed up for a group tour.

Once we had settled in our seats, our Dominican guide Luis stood up and addressed the group.

“You are my family, and we all have to stick together. I don’t want to lose my family.” A few people chuckled and we relaxed a bit as the bus lurched away. First stop, the cable cars.

A small mountain looms over the city. Cable cars, or what we in the US might call gondolas, take up to twelve people at a time up the mountainside. Clear plexiglass windows allowed us to check out the amazing views. The day was hot and steamy but clear, so we could see the coastline as well as the city from our lofty position.


At the top, we disembarked and walked around. A woman who worked there took our picture in the foreground of Christ the Redeemer, a downsized version of the one in Rio. We held up our arms and extended our hands. Scanning our pictures later, it looked as though we were holding up the giant statue by ourselves.

The heat was even more intense on the summit, so we found some shade and waited for the ride back.

Back on the bus again, Luis explained the rest of the day’s itinerary. “We are going to a rum factory, where you will try eight kinds of rum. Then we will visit the chocolate factory and sample the chocolate. We will then visit the Museum of Amber. Finally, we will stop in town so you can buy gifts for your loved ones. Free glass of beer also – they want you nice and relaxed so you’ll buy more.” His honesty was refreshing.

We enjoyed the rum tour. I told myself I would not drink eight small shots of rum, but we ended up doing exactly that. The chocolate place was a bit of a let down. Just like at Hershey, you watch a video to see how the chocolate is made. The samples were stingy, just a few bits for each of us. We did buy some regular sized bars back at the resort and it was sinfully good.

The amber museum was in the downtown area. Some of us loved it, others didn’t. I kind of liked seeing photos of amber mines, and the insects trapped in the stuff, as seen in Jurassic Park. The jewelry was crazy expensive; I’m not sure if anyone bought any. I was fascinated by the paintings on the wall. If I was Joe Millionaire, I might have paid way too much for a striking black and white study of the coastline.

Finally it was time to do some real shopping. We parked the bus and zigzagged our way through the busy streets of Puerto Plata, the roads getting narrower and more sketchy looking as we walked.

We found the place and sure enough, there was beer. After a small glass of Presidente, we moved off to check things out. The prices, my god, the prices. It took a while to figure them out, since all were in pesos. But $80 for a wooden horse? Thanks but no thanks. Ivone said she might have paid $40, but not a penny more!


After that we walked the main city square and took pictures. The sun was beginning to go down, lending a golden color to the city. Still feeling good from the rum, chocolate and beer, we drifted back to the bus. It was a great afternoon; fun, informative, delicious, well worth our time.

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Jungle River Hike

It was the last day Ivone and I would spend in the Dominican Republic. We wanted to make it a good one, at the same time escaping from the overly controlled, too-perfect resort we were living in. We had signed up for the excursion titled simply Jungle River Hike.

The excursion people said that it would take roughly five hours, and mysteriously, that we should take bathing suits and towels with us.

On the appointed day, hot and overcast, we waited in front of the reception area, looking for a truck that would take us and maybe others to the hike. It was a few minutes late. Rancho Salvaje was the name on the side. Horses were painted all over it. In a moment, a cheerful blonde woman walked up to us.

“Hi, you’re here for the trail ride?” She spoke perfect English and did not seem like a local.

I was confused. “Um, no. The Jungle River Hike.”

“Oh. Okay. My name is Sylvie, and that’s Ramon.” She pointed to a figure near the truck. “We’ll be leaving very soon.”


Ivone and I looked at each other, wondering if we’d made a mistake. We climbed into the back of the truck with only one other passenger, a middle aged guy who seemed overdressed in long pants and a light jacket. He didn’t speak or make eye contact.

The truck moved, and we took a jouncing, bouncing ride over some of Puerto Plata’s rougher roads. After twenty minutes or so we turned into a golf course near the beach. Ivone and I exchanged looks once again. The guy sitting with us finally spoke. “We’re here for me.” It turned out he was going for a trail ride on the beach. After picking up Juan, another local, we continued on.

We turned onto what became a mountain road, going past houses, farms, stores, and oddly, restaurants. There was life on this road, with some kids making their way to school, others just making a living. We pulled over near a small convenience store.

Sylvie turned off the ignition and got out, along with her little chihuahua, Shaggy. “I’m just getting water for the hike.” She disappeared inside while we got out and stretched our legs. When she returned she explained that Ramon would lead our hike, assisted by Juan. She had other matters to attend to, but would later take us to lunch.

I got my first good look at Ramon. He wore a striped shirt, jeans and sneakers. From his belt hung a machete, and his face wore a permanent scowl. If I encountered him on a city street, I’d probably give him a wide berth. But he seemed friendly enough; he even offered to carry my plastic bag.

Juan on the other hand was dressed for something other than a hike. His shoes looked like the ones I wore to the office. Juan would serve as the anchor to our group, bringing up the rear, while Ramon led the way.

The first surprise was a river crossing, the first of twenty four (Ivone counted them). I foolishly tried to keep my feet dry by stepping on rocks, but finally there was no other choice than to splash in. I got used to the sound of wet hiking shoes squeezing out water like a sponge as we walked on the drier sections.

Our guides would often stop to point out unusual sites, unusual for us anyway. Banana and avocado trees, edible gourds, and odd plants that closed when you touched them. Ramon often used his machete to deal a mighty thwack to the odd low hanging branch or small logs on the trail. Deep in the jungle, a song entered my head from an old Woody Allen movie:

Rebels are we,

Born to be free,

Just like the fish

In the sea!

I knew I wasn’t marching with a rebel army, but I couldn’t shake that tune.

After the umpteenth river crossing we began to notice a change. The loud sound of cascading water enveloped us, and soon, it was apparent why we were here. A magnificent waterfall, forty feet high, stood before us, feeding an inviting pool. Ivone and I couldn’t get our clothes off fast enough.

It was unusual to swim in the cool water still wearing my boots, but the rocky bottom made it necessary. I swam up to the waterfall, felt its full power, then lazily floated back to where Ivone was. Our two guides did not partake, but rested happily, giving us all the time we needed. Ramon was willing to take several photos of us frolicking in the water, or just standing there posing.


After 20 minutes or so, it seemed time to leave. On the way back we saw several more sights, including some mountain cowboys and their cattle. Ramon tried to sing the theme song from ‘Bonanza’, a television show (slightly) older than I am. He was off key and incorrect, but I fixed the song in my brain, where it took the place of ‘Rebels Are We’. I was grateful.

Sylvie was waiting for us at the truck. After we tipped them (they really earned it), Ramon and Juan left and the remainder of us headed to lunch. Ivone and I rode up front and started to get to know Sylvie. She was from Belgium and had come to the Dominican fifteen years before to visit her dad. She worked at his tourism excursion business for many years, and now she owned it. She loved it here, she said, although she did take trips to her home country now and then.

Instead of going back down the mountain, as I expected, Sylvie drove up. I could not imagine where we might be going, but within ten minutes or so we noticed a sign: Tubagua Eco Lodge.

It turned out to be a mountainside hotel and restaurant. Nothing fancy, but the views were spectacular. We took our places at an open air deck and took in the surroundings. Our host had purchased a large bottle of Presidente Light to go with our lunch, which was brought to us by a smiling landlady. On the table was fish, a vegetable of some sort, and plenty of rice. The beer went down smoothly and paired well with our food.

On the ride back, we got to know Sylvie even better, asking her more questions but also leaving a few silences. Shaggy the dog curled up on Ivone’s lap as he rested his little head on my arm. We told Sylvie we really were not resort people, and she suggested we stay at the Eco Lodge next time.

I was intrigued. “But how would we get there from the airport?”

“They pick you up.” Oh, okay. Problem solved.

Our host wanted to go home for a short break, since she would be leading a sunset trail ride later. So she dropped us off in Puerto Plata with a taxi driver she knew. This gentleman would take us back to the resort by way of several candy stores. (We didn’t buy any.)

We said our goodbyes to Sylvie, with hugs all around. I appreciated that she kept that amazing waterfall a secret, and hired such good people to guide us. Thanks again, and gracias, guys.

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Don’t Know Much About…Dominican Republic

Back in the early 2000’s I belonged to a Yahoo group comprised of wanna-be writers. Each week we did a new exercise or contest to hone our craft. One week the plan was to disobey the old proverb, “Write what you know,” and do the opposite: write about something we knew nothing or little about. Pick a TV show you’ve never seen, they said, and write about it.

I’m not sure what the reason for this was, except that it’s fun to turn things on their head.

I picked The West Wing. Like a school kid who didn’t read the book before an oral report, I fumbled through it. “It’s about the White House…I guess…um…and people that work there…probably.” The fact that I still remember it made it all worthwhile, I suppose.

On the same note, I’m going to visit a country I’ve never been to and know very little about: the Dominican Republic. I’m such a newbie that I’m not even sure whether to put a “the” before it.


Here’s what I do know about the Dominican Republic.

David Ortiz, aka ‘Big Papi’ of the Boston Red Sox, hails from there.

It’s roughly the same neighborhood as Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico.

Big Papi got his nickname from a Boston sportscaster, who noticed that Ortiz called everyone he didn’t know “Papi”. He’s 6’3” by the way.

The plane trip is just under four hours from Boston.

Ortiz was a Minnesota Twin before coming to the Red Sox. His number, 34, was retired when he did, last year.

Chris Columbus may have stopped there a time or two.  Or three.

Big Papi’s Kitchen Home Plate Shaped Tortilla Chips are pretty awesome.


So there you have it. Travel agents have a pet peeve about people who pop into their offices on a frigid winter day, and announce, “I want to go someplace warm!” (Gee, thanks buddy, that really narrows it down.)

I wanted to go someplace warm.

My sister was a big help. We sat down together before her massive computer monitor to plan a trip for me and my girlfriend Ivone. It had been a long (if not especially cold) winter and we needed a getaway.

We checked out a few places, ‘all-inclusive’ being the common factor. Some had meal prices that were sky high. But not the Dominican Republic. Only 30 dollars a day; not bad. I liked the idea of ordering a gin and tonic at 10:00 in the morning, even though I probably wouldn’t.

So we’re going. Soon. I hope to fill in the gaps in my Dominican knowledge and write more about our travels to this exotic, mysterious land. Palm trees, beaches, sun, and pools are in our future. Maybe I’ll bring you back a T-shirt.

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