Category: Life in the midwest

Big Day, Nordic-wise

No, Norway did not win the Eurovision Song Contest this week, and yet we celebrate.  In this town where I live, we celebrate Syttende Mai  (after first learning how to pronounce it.)  Syttende Mai is kind of like the 4th of July of Norway, or so we tell each other, because honestly we don’t really know anything more.  But it’s very happy, and the kids get out of school (presumably) because the highlight of the day is the Children’s Parade at 1pm.  And then you can watch the Nordic Dancers perform. They do traditional Norwegian dances while dressed in traditional costume, you know, waltzes, polkas, stuff like that.  There are two groups, probably 50 kids in each, (one of 10th graders, and one of 6th graders).

They audition a new group every five years, exactly. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to be in the Nordic Dancers, but missed out.  They were only taking kids born in the grade behind me.

Consider this:  I live in a town where both girls and boys are so eager to dance in costume in the street that they have to limit who is even allowed to audition. ! And it’s been going on that way since the mid-1960s.  To audition the child has to be in the exact grade of school for that year’s audition — usually when they are in 3rd grade, I believe.  Then they commit to doing it for the next umpteen years, until they are booted out, tearful and holding hands, when they graduate at age 18.

In this town, it is very competitive to get into the Nordic Dancers. The kids in it get the chance to go to Norway to perform, but that doesn’t really explain all of it.  They dance!  In wool costumes!  When it’s 90 degrees in the summertime!  Last year one friend of mine told me she had overheard other parents actually planning the birth of their next child so that he/she would be born in a year when they would be assembling the next group of Nordic Dancers.  This town is like that.  (Did I mention that last year everyone in town danced the World’s Largest Schottische  on main street, including Tim and me?  With 1880 people?  Doing one dance together to the music of a live folk band, and it broke the Guiness World Book of Records (who may not have even known what the schottische even was?)  And that the average age of the people dancing was about 18 years old, because in this town, the teenagers love, love, love to schottische?

So, Happy Sittende Mai.  We don’t have green beer like St. Pattrick’s Day or margaritas  like Cinco de Mayo.  Um, so, all you really get to do is probably dance a bit of a schottische or waltz on your back deck while you are grilling your hamburgers… which is what we’ll probably be doing.

(Actually, I love the schottische.)

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Ice Cream Tale of Fear and Woe

When I’m on vacation I need ice cream. (Actually, I need ice cream even when I’m not on vacation because who am I kidding, I’m twelve years old. I always have a box of fudgicles in our freezer at home, and at one point, collected the popsicle sticks just to see how many I’d get. The result: a lot.) Regardless. A couple of weeks ago we went on vacation to Michigan. By we, I mean my gorgeous and energetic husband. He has awesome blue eyes, but that’s not the reason I love him so. He is also incredibly patient with me. “I need ice cream!” I declared, as we departed the national park where we had been camping the last few days.

“Okay. Let’s get you some ice cream.”

There was a village of sorts just south of the campground that we had driven through each day. “I want to try the place on the other side of the street,” I said, having had a cone from the northbound side the day before. We pulled into a small lot and parked next to two wooden picnic tables in the sun. Above was a sign saying “ice cream, burgers, souvenirs, maps”

We stepped inside to find a small dark souvenir store rather than a cafe.  But in addition to displays of shotglasses, there were a couple of picnic tables in the middle. As we walked towards the back, two people with cones passed us.  Aha! We came to the right place. An older woman came out of the back. “Need a menu?” she asked. “You can sit here,” she gestured at wooden picnic table

“No thanks,” I said. “Just came for ice cream!” Reggae music played loudly over the speakers.

Along the back wall stood a man in a white apron. Behind him was a grill, and in front of him was a counter top for prep work. There was no big glass display case of ice cream, but.three large tubs sat on the counter between us. “You want a burger?” he said, waving hands in plastic gloves. He was in his late 40s or early 50s, short, with intense eyes of the highly caffeinated. He was also older than your usual ice cream scooper-person. He wore a white apron that tied in the back that he had probably been wearing at least since that morning, and perhaps several mornings before. It had the smudges and oily smears in an orangish hue you’d expect from someone working a grill.

“Just ice cream. What flavors do you have today?” I said.

He fluttered his hands from one bucket to the next, “We have chocolate! We have vanilla! And we have a strawberry nut blend!”  He kept fluttering them–

“Oh,” I said, “I thought there was more, that, uh, you were going to mention.”

“Chocolate! Vanilla!  And strawberry nut blend!”

“Okay. Um. I’ll just have a scoop of vanilla. In a cone.”

“You should try the strawberry,” he said, pushing the carton he held in his hands towards me..

It looked almost empty.  Mostly I saw the cardboard bottom. There wasn’t much left, and I wasn’t sure how long it had been sitting on the counter. Shouldn’t the ice cream tubs be kept in the the freezer? “Is it very hard still?” I asked.

“Oh, you’re being difficult,” he replied.

“Okay. Um. I’ll try the strawberry in a cone.”

“Tell you what! I’m going to give you half a scoop of vanilla and then half a scoop of strawberry! You’ll love it!” With a cone in one hand, he scooped and scooped some strawberry on top. Then he pushed it into the cone using his fingers. They were gloved. Still, it wasn’t something I had seen before. But hey, I’d just been camping, my standards were weakened, so I said nothing. He need both hands to reach for the carton further away on the counter, so he set the cone down—it had a flat bottom afterall– on the counter in front of him. When he reached forward he leaned over the half-filled cone and it stuck onto his apron, the strawberry top acting like glue. The cone protruded there out of his belly when he took a step back. He pulled the cone off and scooped up some vanilla which he put on top.

“I don’t want that one now,” I said, “not after it stuck to your apron.”

“Oh,” he said, looking down at it. “Yeah,” he said, and then tossed it into the garbage can, reaching for a new cone.

“Yeah, well, um, why don’t we just skip it,” I said, putting my wallet back in my purse. “You don’t really have my flavor anyway,” I said, backing away. I waved to my husband and we fled. back into the sunshine.

“What just happened?” he asked.

“It stuck! It was sticking to his apron! Where he had grease from the grill!”

“The cone?”

“Yes! And it didn’t even phase him! If you don’t realize you should throw out a cone that’s stuck to your apron, then I don’t want ice cream from you!” I said.

“I can’t blame you,” Tim said, starting the car.

For the next few miles I told many jokes in varying tones of outrage: “We have four flavors. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and apron-flavored!” Then I shuddered. “Apron-flavored!”

“Involuntary shudder!” I added.

We drove off discussing the types of drugs, legal and illegal, that might be available in that part of Michigan.

“It was reggae music. He could have been stoned.”

“Or meth. I’m hoping meth,” Tim said.

We drove a couple of miles and I added, “It’s the first time that I’ve ever had an ice cream person tell me, ‘You’re being difficult.’” Then I laughed. I laughed and laughed.  Also, I continued shuddering.

Moral: beware of apron-flavored ice cream

Accordions and the 4th of July (with birds on the side)

An accordion has a bend in the middle. Okay, a number of bends. So many in fact that the word accordion has become a verb – which is quite an accomplishment, if you ask me, and you haven’t but I’m saying so anyway. “To accordion” means to fold up like an accordion, in pleats. Which is, coincidentally, what has happened to my back.

Well, officially my back is not in pleats, but that is how it feels. I injured it, I suppose you could say. This past Sunday, while we were canoeing the lovely (but don’t tell anyone) Upper Iowa River, we made it a job/task/fun thing to do, to pick up discarded cans along the way. It was the day after the 4th of July, and you know, some people had been celebrating. And a certain percentage of those people celebrating did so in a consume-a-beverage sort of way, and a percentage of those people left their cans behind like so much puffs of firework smoke. So, while we went down the river, husband and I paddled to the shore on occasion to pick up a shiny metal can, or what was left of one, and throw it in the canoe. And then pushing backwards, well, I fell backwards. One time. Which is all it took. I feel completely off my seat to sit on the floor of the canoe behind me, after first impacting the crossbar. Oooph. Actually, I’m pretty sure I said a few words that might better placed in italics, or is it quotation marks? When you don’t have a copyeditor looking over your shoulder, you are left to add emphasis in any way you like. So I will tell you that at this particular moment, when my shoulder blades impacted the metal crosspiece behind me, I added a lot of emphasis.

I couldn’t paddle the canoe the rest of the way, so for an hour and a half I just sort of lazily posed with an oar in one hand while the bald eagles flew overhead and my husband, sitting in the back, paddled us home.

Since that time, my back has improved. For example, I am able to turn over in bed – without emphasis. But I am skipping yoga class tonight, and wasn’t able to run today. (Did you know I am “experimenting” with running? Emphasis intentional. ) It’s been four days, and my upper back is less painful than it was, but I do feel a bit like an accordion. And I own an accordion and sometimes threaten to play one in public so I know what I’m talking about… or pretend to on occasion.

Anyway, here is a picture of our lovely river. I didn’t take this picture because I don’t bring a camera with me on the river for the reason that 1) our canoe leaks and everything in the boat at some point becomes “one” with the water. And 2) I don’t want to get obsessed with trying to take a picture of the bald eagles and herons and would prefer to just enjoy them. (And at this point I will tell you that while I sat bolt upright in the canoe, semi-wincing with pain, we heard the screeches of a juvenile eagle and then saw it with its mom or dad on the edge of the nest as we floated underneath. Breathtaking. I mean, these eagles are really awesome and were such an amazing choice as the official bird of these United States. Happy 4th of July! And Yay, bald eagles. (Not so “yay” to the discarded cans.)

canoeing upper iowa

(not my feet… I stole this pic from the interweb… but this is our river and ain’t she sweet?)

The shortest distance is always through the woods

There are so many birds out here in the woods that I put earplugs in so I can sleep past dawn every morning. I do–it just can be so deafeningly loud. And one bird just tried to come inside. There’s a screen on this window, but he fluttered around to check it out.
“What are you doing?” I said to the bird.  “You have to stay outside.”
He was only three feet away, so I know he heard me.  But he just fluttered around some more, looking for the way into my room.  Then it cheetered as if in a huff, and flew away. It was very small and purplish, but I don’t know what kind it was.  The woods are very exciting this time of year.

Yesterday there were six large turkey vultures nested together on the cedar tree outside. It was really something. I wasn’t sure how those spindly branches could hold that weight without snapping.  The vultures travel in a group, you know, and most of the time, they look for dead bodies.  I am a writer, but I admit I am stumped as to what to compare these vultures to. Thankfully, nothing comes to mind for “beings who group together looking for dead bodies.”

One thing you may not know about the woods is that the shortest distance between any two points is through the woods. I’m not kidding! For example, our mailbox is more than half a mile away–if you’re driving. But if you just take a walk down the trail, (and then are willing to kind of stumble down a steep slope, mostly on your behind) you can get there in s only about five or ten minutes.  Voila.

So too with tonight’s book event. Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight I am the featured author at a book group that meets—and I’m not kidding—through the woods. They are not meeting in the woods—that would be a little weird, and, of course, it gets dark and buggy by 8:30pm. No, instead there is a book group meeting at the neighbors, the next house up.  They are a retired dentist and wife who live in a log cabin not unlike our own.  They aren’t super close, I mean, I’ll have to walk about twenty minutes… through the public-owned woods and then past a deer-blind and through some woods owned by people who we never see. But to be honest, I’m walking there because it is the shortest way.  If I drove to the book group, I would either have to:  1) take the car up the road that we never, ever drive because it is a gravel road without gravel-=the county calls it “Grade B, Not Maintained”, or 2) drive all the way to the highway and back down the neighbor’s gravel road, which would feel really silly and take approximately forever.

The shortest distance to this book group (who are discussing my book “My Family and Other Hazards” tonight, is to walk through the woods.  Which I will do.  As the sun sets. Along the ride about 50 feet above the river.  (A great hardship, as you can imagine.)

“Bring a flashlight,” my husband said.
“I’ll probably walk along the road on the way home,” I replied, “but yeah, I’m taking a flashlight.”

It’s very exciting to me to take a walk in the woods to arrive at a little party where I will be served a glass of wine. You know, small exciting things. That’s what life is all about anyway, isn’t it? Small exciting things? And they just all read my book. So… that’s very cool.

(And after this little excited rant, you kinda hope I don’t slip in the dark and slide down the ridge towards the road below, don’t you? )

Happy St. Penguin’s Day

Monday was St. Penguin’s Day. It came unexpectedly, as it always does. Two days before we had toasted each other with “Happy First Day of Spring!” When you live in the Midwest, where winter lasts about six months, and you get tired of wearing a scarf around your face, and even more tired of cooking up “frozen mixed vegetables,” a dish which greatly resembles fishfood, spring is perhaps more joyous than Christmas.

But we had forgotten about the penguins. Oh, the penguins.

“We got a foot of snow!” we said, peering out the kitchen window Monday morning.  It started coming down Sunday night, and it didn’t stop until morning. School was cancelled, the construction guys didn’t show up to continue work on our basement. The snow arrived–heavy snow–twelve inches, and it stuck. It hasn’t melted away like it is “supposed to” this time of year.  So now there is more snow on the ground than we have had any other time this winter. And it’s supposed to be spring! Happy St. Penguin’s Day!

(By the way, I just made up St. Penguin’s Day, but I’m going to keep it. Neologism, it’s called, when you invent a new word. And I’m at it again. My first, “melbonic relationship: for the moments when you look across the table at someone who’s talking, perhaps over a cup of coffee, and you are smiling, but you think I am never going to understand this person. It’s going to be a ‘melbonic’ relationship.” And my latest invention: “St. Penguin’s Day: a day in early spring when you get an unexpected dumping of snow.”

(Well, after all, why not blame the penguins? They are cute, so they can absorb a bit of loathing. Also, it’s late March, so Antarctica is approaching winter. They’ve extra snow on the way and they’ve got to put it somewhere.)

By the way, I made a terrible mistake, it seems. I posted that hot dog blog yesterday, not realizing that I had posted it earlier. Actually, one year earlier! The draft of it had been lost on my old laptop, and I started using my new laptop, and then discovered it on the old one in a file for “not posted things” I didn’t realilze I had posted it some time ago. My apology.

(Having a blog is weird. It’s a bit like having a dog as a pet. Fun, sure. But there are times when you look at it and you just feel guilty.)

A story (or two) about a mouse

I am working on a piece of fiction about a mouse and a cat who fight it out on a great battlefield, and the mouse wins. (I hope I’m not giving it away here and have ruined it for you.)  But you see, the mouse doesn’t fight the cat alone, he brings along his minions, and when you think about it, a mouse might have more minions than anyone in the world.

Or so it seems here at home. For the first time since we got this cat–and we call him Ferdinand Magellan–we have mice. The problem was that we made the terrible mistake of leaving the house during the time of the year we could call, “Oh, S#$%@, it’s getting cold out. I need a winter home!” So a few weeks ago, while we were walking barefoot on the beaches of southern Alabama (something I highly recommend, by the way), the mouses of North East Iowa were recognizing an excellent opportunity, in the form of a vacant house. (Our cat was on vacation that week, at the neighbors.)

So now: mice. Not a lot, but apparently it doesn’t take many mice to leave good quantities of mouse “evidence” in the house. And by mouse evidence, I’ll also add that it was a bad mistake to cook up wild rice this week, because the one, spilled onto the countertop, very closely resembled the other, which I had just cleaned up from said countertop.

And so it goes.

Now that our 20-pound cat is back in the house–and we are too I might add–you’d think the mouse(s) would vacate. Run away!  Too dangerous here!  But they/it are stubborn. Also, it was 10 degrees the other afternoon. There is a lot at stake! Too cold to be outside.

So I am writing a little story about a mouse who battles with the cat and then wins.  One of his demands is a conversation with the mayor which he has on the roof of the courthouse.  At this point the mouse reveals his angst, but this is the part that is stymieing me.  What is a mouse worried about?  Tonight I plan to set up a little microphone and recording device behind the fridge to catch our own domestic mices in conversation.  Perhaps I’ll prop up a postit note: “So, what bugs you? Certainly not these traps.” And I will convey the results to my husband, who is Chief of the Traps. (I am Chief of Evidence Removal, which is time consuming, I must say.  On Sunday I emptied out 3 cupboards and the knife drawer, silverware drawer, and spice drawer and bleached the crap out of everything.  Then found more evidence in each place the next day.)

You think of vacation as being primarily to risk sunburn, or of smashing up your rental car, or of taking the wrong route back to the airport and nearly missing your flight. You just don’t think of vacation as being a risk to your sanity, especially as far as kitchens are concerned.

Of course, it’s time to blame the cat. Hey, Cat! Stop sleeping on the couch!  Our cat really likes to hunt mice. We catch him snacking on them at least once a week. But only outdoors. He is a picnic-er. That’s his way. And at 20 pounds, he is at least as large as my willpower —  there is no changing him at all.

In any case, this week I am writing a story about a mouse battle, and simultaneously doing battle with a mouse. Not a great coincidence, but you take what you get on a Wednesday.

For the curious among you, this is what I’m up to, writing wise.  While researching for my next memoir, I’m also working on a collection of short fictions.  I tend to write these little fairytale-like pieces which frequently involve animals, and which frequently, much to my delight, get published. Last month I had a piece appear in “Fugue” which is a cool literary magazine — you should check it out. (They haven’t yet updated their tab, “Current Issue,” by the way.) My piece is about the moon which starts to feel lonely and slips closer to the earth. It’s called “Moon,” which might not surprise you. Wednesday is a day that is best kept surprise-free.

Like this morning, the mouse trap was empty when we got up, but last night I was convinced I heard the trap go off. The peanut butter was completely eaten.  Which was no surprise.

Baaah, (without the humbug)

I have two book events this week in westernish Illinois. While here, I am staying with my aunt and uncle near DeKalb. They have 70 sheep and 7 – 9 dogs for herding them. When you have sheep, you don’t necessary need to have dogs, but it helps. Sheep need to be herded. So do children, but it’s not common to keep a dog for this.  I’m enjoying these last book events… and okay, I’m thinking about sheep.  Now that the holidays are coming up, I am just wondering what that would be like if we did have herding-style dogs, you know, when it comes time to gather nephews. When the Thanksgiving dinner is over, and it’s time to play a cardgame, or that most terrifying of holiday events:  taking the family picture. One way to learn about the futility of your life as a human being, is to call out, “Hey, everyone! Get off your phones, we want to take a picture.” But now I’m wondering if we could keep one of these black and white dogs around, get it to run in a circle, nipping at everyone’s behind. It might work.

Actually, when it’s time to take the family picture, what we usually do is just tell my older sister, “Can you get people together?” Then she runs in a circle and nips at everyone’s behind. Not really, but she is amazingly good at herding. “Hey!” she yells. And everyone snaps to attention. She can get people together so you can get that picture taken in a freakishly short time. Also, people don’t hate her afterwards, which is another important element of herding. I mean, it would be easy if you could do it and then leave, forever. But that’s not how it works with family.

It was easier in the old days when, instead of electronics, kids were mostly drawn to candy. Then you could attract their attention by bringing out a cake. A cake trumps candy.  Or better yet: the frosting, about to be spread on the cake.

In any case, sorry I haven’t written a blog entry in a while. I do intend to do this once a week. And I do intend to post a new quote each week, hopefully on Fridays. I think that of all the internet social media whatnot that I am doing, this blog is the most fun. But, ya know…. While we went on a vacation a couple of weeks ago to New Orleans, I took an internet vacation.  I stayed away from email and blogging and everything. And it got me away from my own electronic habits, and ya know, it was just fine. (Big smile.) Getting away, and getting away from habits, and staying non-digital is very … ah… relaxing. Like watching sheep. sheep - Copy

So thanks for your patience.  I do enjoy these little missives.  And tonight:  I get to give the talk on The History of Miniature Golf.  I enjoy giving that too.  I admit that I get kind of excited about it.  I’m that kind of person about this topic.  And I have pictures.  Power point, baby!  Wish you were here!