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travels

Po’ Boy

Chin merging into neck, the guy sharing our table is persistently friendly, hail-fellow-well-met-ing his way through the world. In what feels like a bold wardrobe choice for a white suburban middle-ager, he’s wearing orange — but then again so were clusters of people around us during the long wait to get into the Parkway Tavern, home of Louisiana’s best po’boys.

I understand the business of hustling towards and milling in a queue for a good sandwich, but the masses of orange confuse me. Has Pantone declared Goldfish Orange the Color of the Year for 2018, and I missed the announcement? It is January 1st, after all, and maybe a deep bow to Pantone’s proclamations is New Orleans’ tradition when the calendar changes.

But then — aha! — I remember: there’s a sportsing happening in The Big Easy on this first day of the new year, and one of the wide-shouldered teams brands its skills with orange. So all these hungry sandwich-seekers are fanpeople, lining their stomachs with gravy and fried pickles before the chest painting.

It’s fortunate my brain catches up, for the friendly man sharing our table unthinkingly trusts that everyone is dialed into his channel. As we all wait for our food, he floats a few chatty queries, notable for being more ice- than ground-breaking, before nodding at the man sitting across the table and divulging overly casually, “This is my dad. He played for Clemson. I travel with him to all the games.”

I don’t know what a Clemson is, but the sentence structure clues: a Clemson must be a school. Or a team. Or a delicious orange fruit. Even more, the broadcast of his father’s past indicates we should be impressed. Across the table, the eighty-something-year-old man is smiling and nodding as though he expects an enthusiastic acknowledgment, and since he seems sweet as a dented helmet, I try to convey something like “WOW, IS THAT SO?” without using actual words — because I don’t know which ones to use with regards to having done something that sounds vaguely notable for a school or a team or a fruit named Clemson.

In moments like this, where I feel pinned against grimy vinyl upholstery by someone’s assumption that we share language and values, I am tempted to respond in my own tongue: “Isn’t it affirming that Jesmyn Ward not only won the National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing but also scored a MacArthur ‘genius grant’? Helluva year for a worthy author, right?”

It is not a fair bet in this country, however, to assume that a stranger would be a book reader and literary fanperson. Rather, all we can presume of the strangers among us is that they are conversant in Ball Sports, able to reel off scores and jersey numbers in between bites of sandwiches that could be tucked into armpits for a sprint to the end zone.

Such presumptions have, on more than one occasion, caused my husband — an honorary woman — to groan, “I don’t like men; they sidle up and think we’re going to connect by comparing notes on our favorite teams, but when I tell them I’m not into football or baseball or basketball, they do a kind of physical recoil and stutter a little bit. Then it gets quiet because they can’t think of anything else to talk about. MEN. UGH.”

Thus, it is shortly after the guy sharing our table has asked, “So if you’re from Minnesota, you guys must follow the Gophers?” that silence falls. I consider unleashing some tit-for-tat on him, thinking this would be a great moment to quiz him on his feelings about Jesmyn Ward, but the Parkway is a mad crush, and I worry that in the din he’ll hear “Quandon Christian” by mistake, and then I’ll end up paralyzing my facial muscles from “WOW, IS THAT SO?” overuse as our tablemate holds forth about linebackers. 

I opt, instead, to lean into Byron’s shoulder, put my mouth close to his head, and murmur: “So I don’t actually have anything to say, but to spare you from these painful conversational attempts while we wait for our food, I’m just going to keep talking intently and intensely into your ear here, okay? That way this nice guy won’t feel like he has to engage with us, and we can relax.”

Scratching his chin, Byron nods thoughtfully and responds loudly, “That’s a really good point. Tell me more.”

Patting his shoulder as though I’m talking him through a crisis, which, in a sense, I am, I continue. “So I’m super excited to have a big ole roast beef po’ boy with gravy on it, and the reviews said the fries are amazing, so I can’t wait to tuck into those, and isn’t it weird how we have to keep all those ceiling fans running in our Airbnb in order to keep the heat from rising, and I’m so glad we scored seats in this hopping joint. I thought we were going to end up outside in the cold, snarfing down our lunches. Also, I keep thinking our new friend here has a faux leather sectional couch in his rec room at home.” Making my eyes wide and sighing dramatically so as to communicate Important Words Being Said Over Here, I add, “I like how well organized this place is; they are very efficient in terms of getting people in, feeding them well, and then getting them out. I also really like that they use a microphone to call out the orders that are ready rather than just hollering, don’t you?”

Tipping his head from side to side to indicate “weighing a thought,” Byron slowly responds, “Yes, microphones are nice.”

Fortunately, the friendly guy sharing our table has managed to snag eyes with a couple passersby and, in this fashion, create for himself the feeling of community that our family is unable to provide. As nonsense waterfalls out of my mouth into my husband’s ear, we hear the guy in orange excitedly ally with other customers, using words like “game” and “ball” and “game” plus “game.” But for the grace of tight space, we would be watching an exchange of high fives.

In the midst of my murmuring, it occurs to me I have an actual thing to say to Byron. “Okay, so about the Gophers. I mean, when he asked us, it genuinely took me a second to realize he didn’t mean burrowing rodents. But when I realized people usually don’t talk about vermin while in a restaurant, I did cop to ‘Hey, this is sports talk,’ but even then I realized I didn’t know what he was talking about. Soooo. The Gophers. Is that what all the UMD teams are called? I can’t remember.”

Here’s a beautiful thing: after 19 years together, I can still surprise my husband.

He knows I’m often six steps behind public knowledge, but still. He would have guessed I would know who the Gophers are. 

I meant to know. My ears had heard of sportsing Gophers. But they hadn’t seen any reason to file the information into the brain, so one ear let it in, and the other ear ushered it out, thus leaving more memory storage available for details about what Rhianna wore to the Met Gala.

Smiling, Byron explains, “No, the Gophers are the U of M in the Cities. The UMD teams are the Bulldogs.”

Clearly, one of us reads the newspaper, and it’s not me.

“Oh, hey, that’s right! I might have known that, actually. We know so many people who go to hockey, um, hockey clashes — derbies? — that I do get an image in my head of toothless men on skates when I hear the word ‘bulldog.’ Well, anyhow, I had no idea what Dude Over There was talking about when he asked us about the Gophers. I was so glad you were able to tell him we don’t follow ball rodeos because I had no idea how to answer him.”

As we chuckle over my sports aphasia, I lean into his shoulder. He squeezes my thigh. 

Our moment of quiet communion provides opportunity; the friendly guy in orange can’t keep himself from small talk. It’s an impulse, this search for quick moments of compatibility. If we have something in common, we establish ourselves as together and somehow stronger. For a sports fan like the man in orange, this means we at the table have an opportunity to come together as a team, if only he can coach the right moves out of us. So he tries again. “Have y’all eaten here before? We haven’t. Are you first-timers, too?”

And even though this poor, lovely man was unfortunate to have plopped down at the table of standpat individualists, we let him score. 

Squaring my shoulders, facing the challenge, I enter the field. “No, we’ve never been here before. Did you read about it in a guide book? That’s where we learned about it — said it’s the best place in New Orleans to get a po’boy, so we figured we better give it a try. How’d you hear about it?”

The question makes him happy. It gets lonely with just Dad sometimes. But now we all have each other. It’s a relief.

As is the moment when the harried cook behind the counter pulls down the microphone and calls out, “Order for John.”

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travels

Going for a Run in Turkey

DSC00061.jpg

I wrote the post below five years ago, when our family lived in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Since that time, not a day goes by when I don’t feel some resonance from that experience. I look in our spice drawer in the kitchen, and I see bags of pul biber. The kilim rugs under my feet, as I walk through the house, were carried home in our suitcases. The hamam soap I use in the shower is Turkish. Messages I receive on social media are from friends who sustained us.

During weeks when there is an election in Turkey, as there was recently, that country is even more on my mind. It’s playing a huge role on the world stage these days–hell, it always has, if one looks at history. While my Western sensibility is saddened that this past week’s election indicates the majority of Turkish citizens are supporting a trend towards autocracy over the democracy established after WWI, I also realize that it’s important to consider why so many Turks are behind the platforms of former-prime-minister-now-president Recep Erdogan. For millions who live in Turkey, the move towards conservatism feels like the best choice. I don’t get that. But I wasn’t raised there. As was the case during our time abroad, Turkey illuminates my cultural blindness–how hard my head has to work to wrap itself around politics, values, and history so foreign from my own.

Good on you, Turkey. I need your lessons.

Here, then, is a callback to that year, a time that bred an enduring love of a hospitable, bewildering land. This is what it took to head out the door of our 400-year-old Greek home and head through the village, out to run on the dusty roads of Cappadocia.

———-

First, I have to brace myself, especially if it’s a hot day, and I’ve decided that wearing shorts is the only choice between me and heat exhaustion.

Secondly, I replay in my mind the guidebook phrase that informs, “Turks don’t consider staring to be rude.” As I remind myself of that phrase, I try not to flash back to high school, when all the boys over six feet tall sat on “Jock Rock” in the front entry of the building and assigned scores to every passing female.

Thirdly, I shield myself with sunglasses, hat, and earbuds–devices that serve as interference between me and the stares that are not rude but that, nevertheless, feel like a challenge.

Fourthly, I prepare myself for the audible commentary and mock applause that Turkish men over 50 produce at the sight of a woman running. It’s a bonus day when they pump their fists in the air and act as though I’m crossing a finish line. As well, I do a special “dodge and weave” stretching routine that limbers me up so I can maneuver my way through the gamut of neighbor housewives who badger me to buy a doll, a scarf, a pair of socks–despite my refusal to do so every single time I’ve passed their houses for the past 11 months.

Fifthly, I ready myself for defense against passing adolescent males on motorcycles and scooters who enjoy a quick game of “Buzz the Runner” when they spot me out on a country road. When this happens, I count myself lucky that I’ve never had men in loafers smoking cigarettes pretend to chase me down–proving their macho by keeping up with the runner–as Byron has. Fortunately, when it happened to Byron, the two faux chase runners, cheered on by their compatriots, had to drop out after a few meters due to hacking and an inability to draw breath.

Six, I try not to laugh visibly at the disconnect between the podcasts I’m listening to and the landscape and people I am seeing. It tickles me immensely to be listening to fairly, erm, hardcore advice being dispensed by Dan Savage as I pass a grandpa on a donkey.

Seventh, once I am out of the village, I pick up handfuls of rocks, all the better to use when and if I encounter the myriad wild dogs. Byron remains genuinely traumatized after his major showdowns with packs of thirty and, most recently, ten angry and aggressive dogs circling him. For the most part, the feral dogs retreat in the face of a rocks and shouting, but even still, Dog Rendezvous adrenaline trumps a “runner’s high” any day.

Finally, once I’ve run the gauntlet of staring; attempted to explain in my limited Turkish the idea that I’m not running any place specific but, instead, am doing spor; and equipped myself with nature’s weaponry, I turn up the volume and set to the jog. On the days when I find the entire endeavor tiresome and just wish for an easy, anonymous run,

at least I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ve provided the natives with some new entertainment–which, clearly, they were needing–and then, smiling, I imagine the neighborhood aunties, so puzzled by my actions, witnessing Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon and watching 9,000 runners pass by in the space of a few hours.

They would wet their shalwars.

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Iceland Moldova past summers travels

Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy

“Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy”

To recap: in a series of summers as I hovered around the age of 30, I found gainful employment, emotional healing, and the constancy of my own two feet.

And then came the summer of perspective.

July of 1999 saw me savaging my credit cards, beating them and their poncey minimum payment threats into submission. My desire to travel KO’ed my fear of revolving debt, and I eagerly planned another trip, this one to hook up with my sister at the end of her second Peace Corps stint (her first tour of duty had taken place a decade earlier in Belize–hey, now there’s a trip I haven’t blogged about!–while her second one, which she was at the tail end of, had consisted of two years in the former Soviet republic of Moldova). She would wrap up her life there, in the land of crumbling concrete and mafia corruption, and then we would cross some borders together before she flew back Stateside and I added on a leg to Iceland, where I would rendezvous with a sassy galpal, The Chef.

While the previous summer had presented me with a romantic break-up that sent me wildly careening around my little world–randomly, hurtfully–for a few months, my equilibrium had gradually been restored through nothing more glamorous than getting up and slogging through each day. Gradually, the bouts of tears and the nights with no sleep became less frequent, then ceased altogether. Dry-eyed, I slept. Thus, when my grandmother died that winter, in the upheaval that followed, I had a few level days of noting, “Hey, I’m handling this. I think I might be fine after all.”

This coming back to myself happened just in time, too. Had it not, I wouldn’t have been ready for–cue the fanfare–meeting Groom. But I was fine, and he was more than that, and quickly, easily, suddenly, I knew He Was It. All of the uncertainties that had plagued previous relationships were weeping dejectedly out on the curb while I tooled around in my new Convertible d’Amour, the wind whipping up my Driving Scarf of Besottedness in cinematic fashion.

Life was lush with goodness. What better time to launch myself into some new places, perhaps for the last time on my own or with Just The Ladies? I was high-spirited, jaunty, zippedy-doo-dahhed beyond belief. All those little Disney birds that fly around and dress Cinderella for the ball? They’d set up permanent residence on my shoulders. (Which, if you think about it, made for a lot of bird crap on my Irish knits. But I was oblivous–too busy spinning in circles on my own little mountain top of bliss.)

And then I got off the airplane in Chisinau, Moldova. By the way, if ever you find yourself feeling too giddy and full of life? I’m going to recommend a visit to Moldova as the perfect antidote. As I waded through customs, having hefted my bag and self off the rickety airplane, goosestepped across a broken-up tarmac, and plowed into the barely-lit terminal, my efforts at talk and joviality with the impassive Moldovan guards were scowled down–it was almost as if they didn’t realize that I was in love! And my hair was big and strong! And I’d tried a new kind of limited-edition ice cream before my trip called The Puck (a seasonal tribute to Minnesota’s hockey culture)!!! And there were about a kabillion reasons to do the hoochie goochie!!!!

My first few minutes in Moldova went something like this:

Me: wisecrack. Them: stonefaced yet somehow condescending. Me: Maybe they don’t speak English and can’t understand my attempts at a light-hearted tone; yes, I’m sure that’s it: they don’t speak English! Them: “We’ll need to see your passport now, Miss.”

Hmmm. I suppose that if you haven’t been paid in a year or more (but what would you buy with your money, even if you had it in hand?), and you have electricity and water for only a few hours of each day, and all natural sense of hope and joy has been systematically crushed out of your people for 70 years, well, maybe, possibly, the fact that I was excited about wearing new cargo shorts with five pockets (!!!) wouldn’t strike you as cause for celebration.

But they were really cute shorts.

Once I settled into stoicism and gave myself over to the lengthy process of bureaucratic maneuvering that was getting through customs, I celebrated seeing me dear ole sis. Having mastered Romanian (one of the primary languages spoken in Moldova) as easily as she mastered Spanish as an adult, she would be the one to introduce me to post-Soviet life, a place of unremitting greyness and desperation.

A somber place it was, ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, marking the end of that socialistic dream. As I spent a few days with her in her apartment, I was struck by the absolute disintegrated-ness-avity-itude of the place, from the capital of Chisinau to the smaller Russian town of Edinets that was Kirsten’s home (handy for her to have that Romanian language training in a Russian town. Thanks, Peace Corps for the foresightedness). Every aspect of the infrastructure was in disrepair, and the truth is that the human spirit is very much linked to its surroundings.

Here, Kirsten stands in front of one of the town’s better buildings.


Edinets’ main department store and its teeming shelves

There I am, havin’ a blast in front of the Social Security building.

Honestly, the darkness, the coldness, the destitution–all could act as Dementors on one’s soul. The place reeked of bleak.

But then…


…we went to the market, to visit my sister’s Bubbies, the nice grandma ladies who would sell her a bunch of carrots and an egg several times a week. Their smiles, combined with the colors and scents of the place, counteracted the gloom. Who needs a full set of straight, bleached teeth with grins like that?

After a few days, after being feted by her friends, students, and fellow teachers (sidenote: the only way Kirsten, a teetotaller, had circumvented the cultural pressure to drink and drink lots had been to tuck herself under the protection of religion and claim to all who pressured her that she was a Baptist–thanks to Baptist missionaries, they are widely known in Moldova as dry and conservative types. So back off, Sergei! Put down the shotglass and leave her to her God! Just don’t tell God or the Baptists that she’s a big honking liar, okay? And that her sister, who does drink, is somehow not a Baptist, okay?) we managed to squeeze all of my sister’s belongings into her suitcases and put a period on the sentence of her two years there. We eventually boarded a bus full of somber, downtrodden Moldovans on their way to Romania. During the first few hours of the ride, the air in the bus was dead, quiet, repressed.

Nervously, we all made it through the checkpoint at the Romanian border. And exactly one minute later, as the bus pulled into the relative freedom and possibility of Romania–of all places–the atmosphere lightened dramatically. You’d think the Beatles were playing on the Ed Sullivan show, the way those women pulled off their headscarves, the way spontaneous chatter and laughter broke out, the way everyone came alive. Romania, you see, was the place to go on vacation…the place to dream of living or escaping to. And, friends, if moving to Romania is one’s brightest hope, then I’ll not begrudge an addiction to some mind-numbing vodka.

We spent a few days in Romania, touring a host of mosaic-adorned temples (the nuns who oversaw them were no more impressed with my perky little cargo shorts than the airport guards in Chisinau had been; they took one look at my sister and me, with our whorish, heathen legs exposed, and tied us up in ankle-length aprons for the duration of our visit). When not touring, I was sniffing out Internet cafes in which I could reach out and cybertouch my To-Be Groom.

After Romania came Hungary, refreshing in its sense of progress, of “Westernness,” as it took steps towards becoming a democracy–Holy Trump, but there were even billboards! Even more importantly, I had a moment in Budapest, down in the subway at a little food stand, a moment when I bit into the softest, warmest, butteriest, meltiest chocolate croissant ever created. Proust’s waxing about madeleines dipped in tisane is a ghost of a sensory memory compared to me and my brief but intense fling with that croissant.

Next on the itinerary was Poland, where we would visit a good friend (She and I had traveled together in Ireland the previous summer, and she’d been a Fulbright scholar at my college before that; when I took her and her family to Yellowstone Park during her time in the U.S., an RV had crashed into the back of our Camry while her husband drove. Damn gawking RV-ers. Like the geyser wouldn’t spew again in an hour. In short, my Polish pals and I–we were solid. Gdansk was mine). Part of our agenda in Poland, outside of tripping through Gdansk, was to visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek (outside of the town of Lublin).

And for that part of our journey, there are no words.

Shoes of the children brought to Auschwitz

Bunks at Auschwitz

The crematory

Breath was hard to come by in the concentration camps. In comparison, Moldova seemed a veritable paradise. To have offered the 6 million Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals who died the option of being settled amidst the crumbling, grey, dour streets of Edinets or Chisinau…there would have been no greater gift. There would have been no greater gift than a multitude of days with unreliable electrical and water service, than to enter a department store with virtually nothing displayed on the shelves, than to remain unpaid for a year or more. There could have been no greater gift.

As is the case with travels, the moments of greatest poignancy pass, and the itinerary compels. In Gdansk, at the apartment of my friend Kasia, we had the realization that Jocelyn’s Sun-Kissed Skin is exactly the same shade as a bowl of borscht.

In fact, later that year, I cut up a hard-boiled egg, balanced it on my nose, and went trick-or-treating as Bowl of Borscht for Halloween. Nobody got it. Cretins.

After we experienced Krakow and Warsaw, the day to part ways arrived. Kirsten flew back to a land of too many lights, too much food, and too much money. I headed to a country of moonscapes, geysers, mountains, and the second-most expensive McDonald’s in the world: Iceland.

What a pleasure it was, to travel with a laid-back, lively friend…

…to work out the kinks at the Blue Lagoon…

…to camp for days by Lake Myvatn, sucking up the ’round-the-clock midsummer daylight

…to ultimately shrug at the vast beauty of it all.
The end result of these peregrinations–from the infirmity of Moldova to the purity of Iceland–was a feeling of history and interconnectedness and for the vitality of each and every life, a feeling aptly articulated in one of my all-time favorite passages of prose, penned by the American author Norman Maclean:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

Upon my return to Minnesota, as I snuggled in my mounds of bedding, noshing on a stack of pancakes with my beau, the words that surfaced from our river were ones that would buoy me into the next phase of life:

“So, will you marry me?”

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gettin' in trouble librarians travels

Bizarro Profession

“Bizarro Profession”

I am a bibliophile who wants to throttle most librarians.

This, of course, keeps me in a constant and heightened state of conflict, as I rely heavily on libraries and read several books a week. I want my books. I need my books. But I don’t like most of the people in charge of my books; they are crabby and often snappish and need a good bitch slap.

Here’s the rub: librarians love information and books and periodicals and cataloguing, but they really don’t like people. Yet their job is one, essentially, of customer service…you know, helping people all day.

So pretty much, the librarian behind the counter is an intellectual, an introvert who just wants to absorb factoids and be left alone to stroke, repetitively, the long braid thrown over her shoulder while memorizing the order of the English monarchs. And then she wants to spend the second half of her shift reading her manga before biking home to eat a solitary meal of lentil soup with grated cheese on top.

Invariably, as the librarian strokes her braid and bones up on her anime, I walk in. You know, wanting books and stuff. And my need pisses her off. And then she heaves her bulk out of the rolling chair to show me where I can find the Civil War Magic Tree House book, stomping, sighing loudly, never making eye contact.

The librarians and me? We’ve missed a lot of potential precious moments together, due to the whole attitude issue. No matter what kind of bookish small-talk I throw out there (“Aren’t we all excited for the new Harry Potter?”), I know Librarian and I will never be running towards each other in slow motion across a flower-strewn meadow, arms extended.

In the town where I live, it got to the point where I actually filled out a comment card about the librarians in the children’s area, noting briefly, “Maybe the library could staff the children’s area with workers who actually like children.” Shortly after dropping this card into the comment box, I took my stack of about 40 books–for both the kids and me, enough to last three weeks–up to the Circulation Desk, whereupon the checker-outer dude rolled his eyes at the size of the stack, snickered with a co-worker at how ludicrous our reading intentions were, and then, handing me the foot-long receipt at the end, snarked, “Make sure they’re all back on time.”

My reaction to this is to think, “What? You’re pissy because my kids will grow up saying ‘Our house was always full of stacks of books that we were expected to read’? Or is it because I’ve disrupted the quiet order of your day by coming to this public place and drawn you out of your reveries about The Renaissance Festival?”

And right about here? Yea, the bitch slap.

My ongoing librarian issues were highlighted yesterday here in Billings, my childhood town in Montana. Needing to check email while we’re on this road trip, I went to the public library. And I had the audacity to ask the man at the Computer Service Desk if I could, devil that I am, use a computer to get onto the modern thing called “Internet.”

Such a query opened the floodgates of resentment and discontent that plague this profession full of Garbo-like professionals, who just “vant to be alone.” The little man, who looked amazingly like Larry “Bud” Melman of the David Letterman show, reared up out of his desk, reaching his full height of Jocelyn’s Clavicle, and exclaimed, “Well, as you can see, all the computers are being used. I just signed up someone else before you, too, so I can’t even begin to tell you when you can get onto one.”

“Really?” said I. “You have no general sense of when any of these ten people have to be off their computers? Are there any time restrictions?”

“Well, everyone gets an hour, and we do have that registration system over there, where you can make a reservation for the next open computer, but other than that, no, I really can’t tell you.”

Realizing that bitch slapping a 60-year-old white-haired man who was a foot shorter than I would yield little in gratification and a great deal in court fees, I tried the talking thing some more.

“Just to be clear: I can go to this station right here and sign up for the next open terminal? And it will give me a time that I can get onto that terminal?”

“Yes, yes, yes. That’s what I said. Here, I can walk you through it, as it seems awfully hard for you. Now, do you have a library card?”

In an attempt to move towards Dr. Phil’s principles of honest and open communication, I responded with, “Actually, I don’t. See I’m from out of town. But is there some way..”

“WHAT? NO CARD EITHER? WHAT IS IT WITH ALL YOU PEOPLE THESE DAYS? EVERYONE JUST NEEDS TO BE ON THE COMPUTER ALL THE TIME. IT’S ALWAYS, ‘GET ME ON THE COMPUTER; GET ME ON THE COMPUTER.’ DON’T ANY OF YOU PEOPLE READ BOOKS THESE DAYS? WOULD IT KILL YOU TO READ BOOKS?”

Keeping my bitchslappers glued to my sides, I warmed up a little with, “You’ll have to pardon me, as we don’t know each other in the slightest. But you don’t want to get me started in a ‘who reads the most books’ contest here, because I’ll win and would have won by age eleven. Also, I came here today, to the public library, where you offer free Internet access, to get on the Internet. All I need is five minutes to check my email. See, I’ve driven here from Minnesota to help my 72-year-old mother empty 115 boxes and a household of furniture out of a 120 degree storage locker, sort through it, arrange a garage sale, and distribute heirloom items to my siblings. And, see, my brother lives in Portugal and has sent me an email, telling me if he wants my dead father’s music bureau or not. Exactly where am I in error here in wanting to access that message from him before we load up the trailer tomorrow?”

Keep in mind, this was just a shot over the bow. Given any more provocation, I’d have had him in a half-nelson and talked low and mean in his pasty ear until his spit dried up and he begged for mercy.

Luckily for his neck and his saliva, he backed down and offered to help me sign up for a terminal, so long as, he noted threatingly, I kept in mind that each terminal was individually named (The Sweetwater; The Poplar; The Rosebud) and made sure only to log-on to my assigned terminal. As I sat for the next twenty minutes, reading a book, waiting for my turn on my assigned terminal, The Maple, I watched him berate and harangue the next three people who also were interested in gaining free Internet access.

And eventually,

I got my turn,

read the email,

shared my terminal with a woman who had logged on earlier in the day to print an article and then, getting home, realized the article had only half printed, so she came back to try it again, only to be scolded by Larry “Bud” Librarian for trying to sneak in a second session in the same day, when the rules clearly state that every patron is only allowed one session per day,

and, after logging off, I stuffed that little, bespectacled troll of a librarian into The DC Comics Encyclopaedia. There the pint-sized Mister Mxyzptlk, Superman’s nemesis, ushered Librarian into a whole new world of control games when he pounced on Larry “Bud” to give him the noogie of a lifetime, promising only to let up if and when Librarian could pronounce “Myxzptlk” backwards while simultaneously checking in overdue items and forgiving the fines.

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bugs dinosaurs donuts road trips travels

Honey, I Can Tell Something’s Bugging You



In college, I had a friend who was gifted nostrilly. I mean, he had some seriously large nostrils. Some nights, to wow The Crowd at dinner, he would take a quarter and stick it up one of his nostrils.

At this juncture, some of you are probably thinking, “Yea, big deal. I stick quarters up my nose everyday, in a very particular and private kind of consumeristic self gratification.” But read on, Mugsy; I mean he’d stick a quarter up his nose, not sideways, but straight on—with good old George Washington and his fake teeth facing directly down to the floor. Then he could just leave the quarter hanging in there, a little booger shelf. In short, his nostril was pretty much the same circumference as a quarter…hence my assertion that he was uniquely gifted in the nostril department. Personally, I’d be hard pressed to get an almond up my nose, much less make it serviceable.

Don’t start assuming this type of stuff is on my mind all the time. I do sometimes have thoughts about books (don’t get me started on Horton and how he heard a Who that one time!), and occasionally I take a look at a newspaper and think, “Anne Coulter. Wow, you crazy beyotch. Keep saying mean things about that John Edwards; donations to his campaign skyrocket every time you call him a faggot.” So, see, I’m a deep thinker about many, many subjects.

But today I will admit I am musing, in focused fashion, on the awesome capabilities of orifices. Go ahead: insert your bawdy joke here. I’ve made about ten and deleted them all while typing this for I am, you see, very, very couth, in addition to being a deep thinker.

Now let’s move on. I’m thinking about orifices because our latest travel adventure required that my Groomeo have a gaping hole in his head, and not just his yammering maw. Rather, this adventure required that he have a really accessible and welcoming ear canal—that he be aurally gifted. I’d never noticed it before The Ear Event, but he really does have a good-sized cave up there, above his ear lobe.

To backpedal a bit: after a luscious week in Colorado, where we saw lots of folks, biked, avoided the Spirulina WheatGrass Soy Protein Shakes, had terrific trail runs (heat and prickly pear notwithstanding)…


…and got the kids out in a canoe…


…we quit the state and headed for Wyoming, where we garumphed around for the last couple of days. The change in terrain brought the camera out, even at 75 mphs…


…and after camping under a very fertile cottonwood tree one night outside of Casper (where the most curious little monkey roamed our campground)…


…we struck camp the next morning, during which The Event took place. Get this: a bug flew into Groom’s ear–and tunneled in for the duration.

Throughout the day, his hearing was plagued by loud fluttering sounds and burblings (which I posited was the noise a bug makes as it lays eggs, which, after gestation, would turn into a winged migration that would exit through his nose and mouth). First, he tried flushing it out with copious amounts of water poured into his ear canal. No luck. So then I broke out the tweezers, testing our love as I maneuvered past clumps of ear wax to extract any living thing. Sadly, our efforts were a bust. So we carried on with the day…


…toodling, amidst our mountain of car-crap, over to Thermopolis, where we visited the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Our 4-year-old Niblet melted in the heat during the tour, to the point that he proclaimed “That was vewy boring for me” minutes after having seen Stegosaurus vertebrae (uh, the plastic model isn’t to scale, btw)…

…but Girl was able to appreciate an Allosaurus footprint when she saw one.


During all this, with scary-alien-brainsucker-bug still alive in his skull, Groom went for a sweaty run, ate a hamburger, and hung in there gamely for 8.5 hours before announcing, “I think we need to go find a doctor.”

Turns out, the Thermopolis hospital, in a town of about 3,000 souls, has bug-in-ear experienced docs who greeted my beau with a reassuring, “Oh, we see this all the time.” (I suppose if you’re a rancher who lassos little dogies while riding horseback in the chapparal for sixty years, the bugs do have ample opportunity to score the hole in one of your ear canal.)

So the White Coats stuck a water pick in Groom’s ear and started flushing. Hmmm, said they. More flushing. Bigger HMMMMs. Then a very long, narrow tweezers came into play, and, as the gathered staff looked on, gasping and murmuring, THIS bit of horror…


…was eventually extracted from my true love’s ear, very much alive and aflutter. The docs gave him his trophy in a container, where it continues to flap its wings, even now, two days later.

To get rid of remnant moth dust in his ear, the professionals flushed the canal a few more times and left him with this homespun prescription: “Tonight or tomorrow morning, put a few drops of cooking oil into your ear, and that’ll clean you out real good, son.”

Since it’s been very hot (still 95 degrees at 8 p.m.), and since we were heading into Yellowstone Park the next day, where restaurants were scarce, I saw a way to make my groom’s huge and inviting ear hole into something functional at last. We needed to carbo-load before taking on Old Faithful, so I let the vegetable oil heat up in his ear…

…and then fried up some mini-donuts in the oil and ear wax.

Tasty.

Boy howdy, but Krispy Kreme ain’t got nothin’ on us.

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lifestyle the West travels

If You Pay More For Everything, Then Life Is Better, Right?

“If You Pay More For Everything, Then Life Is Better, Right?”

Every town has its unique features–those little lifestyle elements that contribute to the feeling of the place. Such features are often taken for granted by longtime residents, but, man-o-man, are they noticed by the newbies and visitors.

For example, as has been intimated in previous posts, when I first moved to Austin, MN, more than a decade ago, I noticed (a tame term for something that was more of a physical recoil coupled with violent gagging) the smell of the SPAM cooking at the Hormel plant. I also filed away the sound of the pigs heading into the kill line, literally Auschwitz-style on a train chugging into the compound of the plant, in my Permanent Sense Memory files. Even though I’ve now been seven years away from that town, I still remember the frantic squeals.

Earlier than Austin were my years in the panhandle of Idaho, where lifestyle consisted of an unthinking respect of guns, even when shot at children during the Ruby Ridge incident, Another facet of lifestyle up there was a belief in White Power. Goooo, um, white folks with guns. If you own’t fight for your liberty, how will you ever enjoy equality?

Long before that, even, I lived in my hometown in Montana (Idaho’s kissing cousin), a place typified by gun racks hanging in the cabs of pick-up trucks–and these in the parking lot of my high school. There was nothing like hearing the bell ring at the end of the school day, slamming my physics book into my locker, fluffing my bi-level hair and enormous shoulder pads, and heading out to the parking lot to admire who had the most firepower on wheels. Then I’d head home to eat a pound of beef straight from a cast-iron skillet.

Suffice it to say, I’m a lifestyle connisseur by this point, always inventorying what makes a place tick. In my current hometown, one I chose on purpose, there is a clear sensibility, one that is built around kayaks, canoes, Subaru Outbacks, black labs running wildly off-leash, and ore ships. As I harken back to my upbringing surrounded by the arid Rimrocks in Montana, I can hardly reconcile the sound of a foghorn that permeates so many of my adult days. Startlingly, I now live in the midst of a water-obsessed cabin culture.

Thus, when I’m on vacation, as now, you can slap your chaps with complete confidence that I’m taking stock of the vibe of each place. And here in Boulder, in Colorado, my work is easy.

Because, you see, Boulder is a loud and proud lifestyle city.

For a million bucks, you can buy a shack. For five dollars, you can buy a candy bar. It’s all rather New York, eh? What’s so fun and trippy about Boulder is that the dominant feeling is “we’re hippy-dippy and have tattoos on the napes of our necks hovering just above our yoga-toned arms which are highlighted by our $60 tank tops while we’re out running the trails in between trips to the oxygen bar.” The place, purely and simply, is about living deliberately and embracing health and sun and skiing and two hundred dollar dinners, all of which are, in turn, punctuated by buskers on the walking mall singing “Peace Train” off key.

Even though it’s all so very high maintenance, I dig it. And it will be okay to leave it in a few days, too.

Let me present you with this case study as evidence of Boulder life: we are staying in the home of dear, dear friends of mine this week; they currently happen to be on vacation with their two daughters, but they are generously letting us stay in their empty home. I yuv them.

At the same time, I can tell tales from their cupboards–stories about the Spirulina Powder, the Vegan Vanilla Rice Protein Capsules, the Whole Psyllium Husks, and the Bio-Cleanse Capsules. If these were the only things in the kitchen cupboard, I would be scared of my own friends.

Reassuringly, though, they also have delicious and toxic Cheez-Its in the cabinets, and the house is littered with stores of Happy Meal toys (our kids stumble across them and shout out in recognition). Really, if we took away the Spirulina Powder, the Vegan Vanilla Rice Protein, the Whole Psyllium Husks, and the Bio-Cleanse Capsules, it would be just like home.

Except a hell of a lot cleaner. They have a cleaning woman, you see. In Duluth, we just call that a “Jocelyn.”

Cheaper, at any rate. And we do find we get what we pay for.

———————-

So do tell, readers: what are the lifestyle trademarks of your town? Gertrude Stein famously said of Los Angeles, “There’s no there there.” What puts the there into your place?

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buffalo Nebraska sod house travels

“Dharma Bums”

GAAACK.

I’m a human shoe tongue. Leathery. Dessicated. In need of a good tug to straighten out my wrinkles.

For the love of high heat indexes and mind-altering altitude, could someone just pass me some moisturizer? And then, so long as you’re in motion, dump a 64-ounce Slurpee on me?

See, as of today, we’re outside of Boulder, Colorado, and I–get this wisdom in action–decided that temperatures over 100 degrees and complete exposure to blistering sun would make a fine backdrop to my daily run. So I headed for The Mesa.

Sure, I got to listen to some Joe Jackson (“Is she really going out with him?/Is she really going to take him home tonight?”) on random local radio, but the fact that all dewiness was gradually being leeched out of me overcame the tunes. I slogged along, admiring the Flatirons to the West, keeping a wary eye out for rattlesnakes, coyotes, and yucca.

And eventually, my dehydrated shell staggered back to the house here, where only half a pizza and two mixed drinks could revive me (jot that down as a homespun cure for dehydration; never mind what the “specialists” say).

Outside of this run…oh, okay, and yesterday’s run, too, in the mid-day inferno that folks in Lincoln, Nebraska, call “noon in June,” the trip has been an easy toodle across the Great Plains. Do you suppose this heat, coupled with the thigh-high prairie grasses, could explain why early homesteaders didn’t run marathons? Before the last two days, I just thought they were pussies.

So we left Duluth four days ago and spent the first night with one of the Friends of My Life, a woman who lives in Austin, Minnesota. We exited the car there, and Girl wrinkled her nose, sniffed a bit, and asked with great disgust, “What’s that smell?” Well, dear Girl, it’s the smell of all that’s evil in the world being violently reduced into an aspic, canned quickly, labeled brightly, and then shipped out to places of war and/or Hawaii. There, poor unfortunates crack the tins and choke down the food called SPAM, giving themselves a thimble full of nutritionally-questionable energy.

Look at how I bring the world to my children, would you?

Since my Austin friend happens to be 70, and our young Niblet happens to be 4, these two, with liquid ease, found they held in common an avocation: dressing themselves, and others, in costume. Thus, in my friend’s basement, Hijinks–and their lesser-known cousin Chuckles– took roost:


The next morning, our true identities restored, we tore out of Austin, made quick work of Iowa, and crossed into Nebraska. And there, due to the hallucinations induced by two nights of restless sleep in KOA Campgrounds (conveniently stocked with barking dogs, ant hills under sleeping spots, and late-night drag racers) I made a break-through:

**Although I don’t think seditiously at all, really, President Bush and Your Blog-Watching Minions (I mean, er, “Freedom of Information Fighters”), it was revealed to me that Nebraska is the actual seat of power in this country, and, were it crippled in any way, the U.S. would grind to a halt.

First: the East/West highway running through that state is actually an Unbroken Corridor of Semi Trucks, where all food and goods for our millions of citizens are transported at high speeds on eighteen wheels; why, even when I attended the How Many Semi’s Can We Fit Into a Church Parking Lot Rally in Rugby, North Dakota, some years back, I never saw the like of that Nebraska highway. Bumper-to-bumper Wal-Mart and Home Depot trucks rule the asphalt, playing chicken with their loads of toasters and drills.

Second: Paypal is housed in the Council Bluffs/Omaha area; without Paypal, would any of us have a collection of Star Wars figures (still in box) in the upstairs closet, just awaiting eventual resale when our children’s college educations need financing? Paypal is the true president, if we’re talking about a daily, effective presence in citizens’ lives.

Similarly and thirdly: Google is on the verge of opening a Server Farm in Omaha, an automated location that will handle all Google queries; and if the town that can answer “What Website contains the most information about lobster panties?” isn’t the seat of modern democracy, I don’t know where the power rests.

Fourthly: language in Nebraska captures the human condition like no other American locale; today, a tour guide actually exclaimed to me, “…and then, in the face of all those trials, they had to think, ‘Isn’t that just the berries?'”

Oh, yea, and finally, Nebraska is the repository of our finest history and arts, from sod houses…


…to buffalo statues made out of 4.5 miles of barbed wire fencing…


Wisely, Niblet shied away from this here bison, preferring instead to head back to the mini-van, where he tried on clown wigs, admiring himself in the rear-view mirror.

Such are the freedoms afforded to Americans, wherever they may roam.

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