Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Disaster Kitchen

I want to cook like Trisha Yearwood, Giada, Ree The Pioneer Woman and a host of other TV chefs.  I have accepted the reality that I never shall.  That's just fine, if ever I get my own cooking show, it's going to be called "Disaster Kitchen" and it will show every step of the new recipe process, not just the ready for prime time bits.  Let me preface all of this by saying that until about seven years ago I was a competent, but not particularly inspired or skilled cook.  Then I quit smoking and needed to fill the time between getting home from work and dinner time. That was the hardest cigarette to give up for some reason so I decided to make food that kept me busy for the danger time.  I needed recipes that required attention to detail, I wanted to chop and dice and simmer and blanch and all those cool things that I watched on Saturday mornings.  In my head, that dangerous phrase formed, the one that has been the downfall of greater men than I. "How hard can it be?"

Harder than you think, it turns out.  I knew the basics, I could make hamburger gravy and (boxed) mashed potatoes, I was a whiz at making Kraft Mac and cheese all fancy by adding a few chunks of Velveeta and sticking it in the oven for ten minutes and my addition of a shake each of garlic and red pepper flakes to a jar of spaghetti sauce bordered on genius, but that was pretty much where my culinary inspiration ended.  This was it, my time had come and I was about to become master of my kitchen domain.  Or I was about to get my ass kicked by a metric fuckton of potatoes.

At that point in time, my beloved worked for a company that, among other things, makes French fries.  This meant he had access to huge bags of potatoes for just a couple of bucks.  I'm talking 50 to 100 pound bags for $5, needless to say, we were the go to whenever our kids' sports teams wanted to do a baked potato fundraiser.  This meant that on any given weekend, my kitchen was host to enough potatoes to have saved my people from the Famine.  Occasionally, my beloved would randomly bring home 50 pounds of spuds just for the sheer joy of eating our body weight in potato.  Slowly but surely, I started to notice that friends and family had begun to avoid eye contact and declined invitations to the house for dinner.  As it turns out, a menu comprised solely of potato dishes wears on the palate and the belly after a while.  Perhaps finding potatoes in their purses and slipped into their coat pockets put them off but I was desperate to unload the damn things as my house did not come equipped with a root cellar.  

Determined to maintain healthy, non potato based relationships with the people in my life, I needed to figure out what to do with mass quantities of red potatoes ASAP.  Searching YouTube yielded a blanch and freeze method of preservation, so I set about peeling and cutting a pile of potatoes the size of a VW Beetle.  I can see why this was used as punishment back in the day.  There are few tasks quite as tedious that cannot be done mindlessly as you risk slicing off layers of skin and flesh from your fingers as the price of inattention.  The onerous chore completed, I set about the blanching process, this involves the biggest pot you can find (borrow one, seriously, because if you buy one, you will likely never use it again and it will stare accusingly at you from whatever dark cabinet or basement shelf you exile it to after this one ill conceived experiment), a shitload of salt and a week's worth of water.  You get that giant pot of salted water to a lusty boil and, risking life and limb, dunk batch after batch of potatoes in to cook partway.  Part way being the keyword here, as what what actually means is "Just cook them all the way because what you saw me do on YouTube is nothing you're going to be able to accomplish in your entire pathetic life, you silly little amateur."  Then you let them cool, vacuum seal them and pop the tidy potato packages in your freezer for convenient use whenever you need them!

Wrong, you've never been so wrong in your life.  Two weeks later, you'll go down to the basement freezer to begin your new life of preserving your own food only to find how terribly wrong this whole process can go.  You see, if the potatoes aren't blanched for EXACTLY the right amount of time, something horrible happens in the freezer.  Your careful vacuum sealing can't save it, your best intentions are not going to help you or the stacks of now gray/green/black/blue/whatthehellisthatcolor potatoes that cringe away from the light of the open freezer door like some kind of swamp dwelling, previously unknown creature that will forever haunt your dreams.  Twenty five carefully labeled, stacked and sealed packages stared defiantly back at me, mocking my inexperience and daring me to step into the ring with my own kitchen for another go round. So "blanching" actually means "just cook the damn things, you'll thank me for it later".  So noted.

We started our own compost in the back yard that day so it wasn't a complete waste.

My sister in law offered to come over and make salsa some months later, she's done it before and it's easier than I'd ever imagine.  That's what she told me, that's what she said.  And, I can use that giant pot that I've done nothing but move from place to place because I can't seem to find a permanent, out of my way, WHY IS IT SO DAMN BIG home for it.  So, salsa, is it?  She, my beloved, her beloved and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours chopping, seeding and prepping our tomatoes, onions, peppers and the rest while imbibing in a beer or maybe some bloody Marys with beer backs...my memory is a little fuzzy for some reason.  Brenda claimed that we didn't need to boil the jars for canning, we just need to run them through the hi temp cycle in the dishwasher and that serves the same purpose.  Having never canned anything in my life, I demurred to her experience and superior knowledge which turned out to be kind of helping her mother in law and seeing someone do it on TV once.

DO NOT DO IT THIS WAY.  Not ever.  Also, make damn sure you fill the jars almost to the brim.  Why, you ask?  Because the dishwasher method creates too much of a vacuum seal that eventually compromises the structural integrity of the lids and they pop.  And by "pop", I mean they fail completely, make a noise that I don't not have the vocabulary to describe and launch the contents of the jar skyward until they inevitably encounter the barrier to the open sky that is your kitchen ceiling.  You and your helpers will stare at a ceiling that now resembles nothing as much as a murder scene for a very, very long time as the reality of what just transpired takes a loooooong time to register to a vodka and beer soaked brain.  Once it does, however, much hilarity ensues and the stain never quite goes away.  Side note, tracking down and bathing your now salsa covered cat who was unlucky enough to have been in the kitchen at the moment of impact takes a lot of coaxing, chasing and eventual capture that involves brooms, tennis rackets and a bedsheet you're willing to sacrifice for the cause.  He also won't speak to you for several days and when he does, you know you'll never be completely forgiven for this transgression to his person.

We did manage to seal the remaining jars properly and the salsa was delicious.

Fine, we'll start a little smaller than 500 potatoes and a couple dozen jars of salsa.  Let's take a whack at something we can eat right away and enjoy the fruits of our labor immediately. I know, poached eggs!  I always considered poached eggs to be a super fancy, special occasion kind of food that it never even occurred to me to try making at home as it seemed solely the domain of seasoned chefs and Saturday morning Food Network stars.  I set my pot of water to a hearty simmer, got it swirling to the recommended velocity and carefully cracked an egg into the vortex. I could see immediately that this was not going well, the white of the egg spun wildly out of the grasp of the vortex to morph into jelly like tentacles that slithered to the edge of the saucepan in a desperate attempt to escape.  The timer dinged and I gamely scooped what I knew was not a beautifully compact poached egg out of the water that was now cloudy and speckled with bits of gluey, semi cooked egg.  It's okay, I know what I did wrong that time.  Attempt number two was equally as unsuccessful as the first but my determination was not to be swayed by two failed attempts.  Number three had me hopeful that this would work until the poached looking egg disintegrated into the water as I lifted it out, rendering the boiling water into an Irish girl version of egg drop soup (see what I did there?).  Attempts four through nine involved vinegar added to the water as recommended by several chef types but yielded soggy jelly like messes that smelled strongly of pickles, this will not do.  By now, I have abandoned even the pretense of wanting the damned eggs and am committed exclusively to the principle of the project I had set for myself.  To hell with ever eating the damn things, I WILL WIN, THESE EGGS WILL NOT DEFEAT ME.  Eighteen eggs, prolific swearing and three eggs that may or may not have been thrown at the wall (much to the dog's delight as he happily licked away the evidence of my burst of temper) I came to the conclusion that the perfect poached egg was a myth, some kind of culinary unicorn that only exists in story and song and I would never achieve this magical food in my lifetime.

One week later, I stumbled upon a poached egg cheat that actually did produce that perfection I had only dreamed possible. A ramekin, lined with plastic wrap, sprayed with nonstick spray, the egg nestled inside and tied into a little bundle with a bit of string and tossed into a pot of boiling water for three minutes and there is was, sexy, silky, creamy perfection in a gorgeous little bundle.  It was glorious and I made it myself.  The angels raised their voices in a magical chorus to this vision of beauty as a ray of golden light shone upon my plate as I raised my fork to pierce the lovely yolk, freeing it to fill every nook and cranny of the waiting English muffin, toasted for just this occasion. I took a moment to record my hard fought success with the perfect picture to share with all those who ever doubted me and watched in horror as my precious, gorgeous, perfect egg slid off the plate on its English muffin raft to the floor and the waiting jaws of my eternally patient yellow lab.  That was it, it was over, I was done.  I can't reproduce this result, or can I?

Turns out I can, and I do on a regular basis because poached eggs really are that good.

There you have it, the basis of my cooking show would show all the disasters in the first half and THEN the carefully crafted successful execution in the second half. I think it would be a smash hit.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

I Have A Great Idea

I am not crafty.  I do not quilt, paint, woodwork or any of that stuff. I know how to sew, I know how to crochet, but I don't do much of it on a regular basis.  That said, I am periodically struck by inspiration and leap in with both feet. These are some of those stories.

  Once upon a time, I went to a stamp party (if you've read previous posts, you know how I feel about those "parties") and spent practically a month's rent on stamp sets featuring teddy bears, ribbons, balloons and a load of other girly shit that is totally NOT my style but I was riding the euphoric wave that accompanies a fair amount of Moscato, snacks, chocolate and LOOK AT HOW CUTE THAT IS YOU'RE RIGHT I NEED IT! Okay, the classic Winnie The Pooh stamp set is still one of the cutest things I've ever owned, but once my babies became full on kids, my opportunities to use them faded fast. I was going to scrapbook my ass off, I was going to make my own greeting cards, invitations, calendars, I was going to be a stamping, fancy scissors wielding, ribbon tying, hot glue master GODDESS. Or my kids were going to discover sports and hunting and I was going to realize, once again, that I am not that kind of girl.  Not even a little. I'm not even sure what happened to all the stuff I acquired in my scrapbooking fantasy fueled frenzy.  I think they're still in a box somewhere but haven't seen the light of day in probably fifteen years.

I could have done this, I'm that organized, really.

From stamps, I moved on to crocheting.  This was actually a hobby that lasted for a good while but once you've made an afghan for pretty much everyone who has passed through your life since the fifth grade, your enthusiasm tends to fade. As does everyone else's once you've gone completely round the bend and started making holiday themed afghans and afghans for the dog.  My yarn stash reached a problematic level when my unsuspecting beloved opened the wrong closet door and unleashed a seemingly unending cascade of bundled yarn in every possible shade and thickness.  Once he was extracted from the softest, fuzziest avalanche in history, he sat me down for a rather stern discussion about what he called "a giant addiction" but really was maybe a tiny bout of overenthusiastic sale shopping, idea formulating, someday I'll make it, I love this color and will make a thing, did you see that one, I know the perfect....okay, FINE I NEED HELP.  The ensuing purge went down in the annals of our family history as "Yarnmageddon", a combination of returns, sales to friends and strangers and a copious amount of donating, we pared the stash down to a manageable level. (Note, the following is NOT my stash, but my God LOOK AT IT)

Sweet Martha, I just had a yarngasm.
After Yarnmageddon, things were quiet for a few years, at least as quiet as things get around here which really isn't all that quiet come to think on it, but you get the point.

Then I quit smoking.

When you quit smoking, you have to find things to do that aren't lighting a cigarette so a few things crossed my path in relatively quick succession:

 I made my own earrings for a while, some that I still wear to this day but the magic wore off before I could become truly dedicated to the lifestyle. I still have the beads and some wire, I make a pair from time to time but honestly, the bloom fell off that particular rose pretty quickly. My beloved and I do not share the same aesthetic, never more clearly displayed as when he asked when I became interested enough in fishing that I was making fishing lures for him.  And that's how that fight started.

Y'all are jealous now, right?
Woodburning appealed to me for a fair bit but as I'm not particularly artistic, there was a limit to what I could create.  A person only needs so many cute little signs and nameplates, after all.  I did sew, but really only ever mastered rod pocket curtains and hemming things so that got pretty dull after a while.  Decoupage, cross stitch, collages and mosaics all came and went until I realized that I was having way more fun cooking that anything else.  Better yet, my younger son liked to join me.  He's adventurous and has really good instincts when it comes to food.  Hitting on something like that was very satisfying and everyone in the house breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't gone completely off the deep end again.  The stuff I'd buy to indulge THIS obsession weren't insane and actually served a purpose.  I've learned my lesson, I don't have drawers full of lovely, single use kitchen gadgets but I will admit to a weakness for cool serving pieces and storage items. I found an extra large metal Calumet baking powder can that holds all my long spoons and such that is AWESOME and the greatest deviled egg plate that looks like a painter's pallet but both of those are useful. Don't look at me like that, a deviled egg plate in the shape of a painter's pallet IS a necessary kitchen item.

These days I don't become obsessed with an all encompassing hobby so much as I am struck by inspiration.  I tend to formulate a plan, work it out in my head and then go for it.  My beloved has declared a moratorium on my drinking coffee and browsing Pinterest on Saturday mornings because that has come to mean we're at Lowe's by noon.  My family's reaction to "I have an idea." is "uh-oh" followed by a hasty exit from whatever room I'm in.  They love to bitch and moan but we're three for three so far this summer.

Our first project started with Charlie's and my shared love of cooking.  I have a decent kitchen but it lacks the counter space needed when two people are trying to cook everything from scratch and have two cutting boards going and such.  We were doing a lot of moving one another out of the way or one of us would end up doing our thing at the dining room table.  I found a long double dresser for $50 on the local sell/swap site and snapped it up.  Two weeks later, I was the proud owner/creator of a movable, five foot by two and a half foot long wood topped kitchen island with three shelves, a cabinet and four drawers.  Granted, it did take multiple trips to local hardware stores and an aborted attempt at using flood coat (side note: that stuff will freak you out when it's been spilled on the basement floor because it forever looks like a puddle of water), but three days of sanding it off and about ten coats of polyurethane later, the damn thing is GORGEOUS!

Still can't believe this worked.

A couple of weeks later, after I had killed off the herbs I was trying to grow in cute little pots on the kitchen windowsill, I had another idea.  I caught my beloved before he could flee the room and we headed to the building center once again. Ten feet of rain gutter, two end caps, a mess of drilled holes, four screws and a bracket later:

That's right, I have herbs.
Not long after the herb garden triumph, my beloved and I were sitting on the deck listening to the sprinkler running and he mentioned how soothing the sound of running water is and how we should dig a creek into the backyard.  This lead to a discussion about Koi ponds and how that was not going to happen because I'm not spending the winter with giant goldfish swimming in the bathtub.  However...
My beloved has come to recognize the signs, there's apparently a look in my eye that portends a trip to Lowe's.  He's learned resistance is futile and is just giving himself over to it at this point.  He is a wise man. A few hours later and we return home with the gathered supplies.  We're making a fountain for the deck.  Both my sons just shake their heads when I tell them my latest plan but they dive right in because they know their involvement is inevitable.  A large ceramic planter, a planter bowl, a plastic plant bucket, a medium sized pond pump and a T shaped nozzle and we're off to the races.  I came into this one so optimistically but it almost got the best of us.  Note for future fountain making: BUY A PLANTER WITHOUT DRAINAGE HOLES IN THE  BOTTOM.  Four dime sized holes became the bane of my existence for the next two weeks.  We tried that aerosol rubber stuff, other than making us high as a kite and creating a mess that had to be sandblasted off, it did nothing.  Next we tried spraying that crap onto some wine corks and stuffing them into the holes.  I'll give the corks and E for effort but ultimately they failed.  Next up were boat drain plugs but they didn't work with the bucket that was necessary to hold the pump in it with the inverted bowl on top.  Finally I ordered rubber laboratory stoppers online.  My hopes were high until we realized they were just a shade too big for to GODDAMN DRAINAGE HOLES.  Unwilling to admit defeat, my beloved dug out the Dremel tool I bought when I was going through a glass etching phase.  I have never seen him take a project quite so personally, but he was quite offended at the resistance we were encountering with the freaking holes.   Did you know that both the Dremel and the ceramic start to smoke after a while?  They do, a lot.  He did it, though.  The stoppers went into smooth as butter, followed by a copious amount of Gorilla Glue...they'll outlast us all, I'm fairly certain.  

Two days later, as we sat on the deck listening to the bubble and gurgle of our wonderful fountain, sipping wine and basking a bit.  My beloved sat down next to me on the loveseat, pulled me close and whispered in my ear "I've changed your Pinterest password, my dear."  Silly boy, he doesn't know about Instructables...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My Happiest Place

Anyone who knows me, or who has spoken to me for more than five minutes in the past few weeks knows of my deep and abiding love for the Minnesota State Fair.  For ten days at the end of August until Labor day, the state of Minnesota gathers in Falcon Heights, just a shade outside of the neighborhood where I spent my formative years. Some of  my happiest and most vivid childhood memories revolve around the fair.

My father, his brother, and their father were fair fanatics.  I imagine the familial obsession went further back in the annals of our history as we are a St. Paul family from way back when.  My dad would go multiple times, always with the whole family, with just one or two of us and at least once on his own.  My mother came along when we were all little, but never had the passion for the fair that dad did. We had routines and rituals at the fair, some of which I follow to this day, it feels natural and comforting that some things truly never change.  Dad taught us early on that the only acceptable hot dog on a stick was from the yellow and brown Pronto Pup stand (the wiener dun in a bun) and no other would do, don't even think it. To this day, the first thing we eat at the fair is an official Pronto Pup, it does not matter what time we arrive, that is first.
That's the ticket!

I don't know what magic is imbued in that fluffy yet crunchy coating but it envelops the dog in a loving embrace of pure wonderfulness, a corn dog just won't do, it MUST be a Pronto Pup.  Generally there is a root beer barrel located in close proximity to the Pronto Pup booth so I naturally associate the two.  The last time dad and I went to the fair together was in 1992, a month before I got married and we managed to hit every single Pronto Pup booth on the grounds (eight, I believe) and washed a few of them down with root beer.  The sight of those booths and that first bite will always and forever bring me back to my father's side.

The other must is the All You Can Drink Milk booth.  When I was a kid, it was all you can drink for a quarter and boy, did we take advantage of that deal.  The milk was ice cold, foamy and somehow tasted a thousand times better than the milk from home because fair milk is special.  We'd hit it every year, just about first thing as it was near the entrance on Como Avenue where dad always magically managed to find parking.  That is until one fateful year when I was about nine years old.  Imagine a 90+ degree day, not a breath of breeze and packed fairgrounds.  Combine those conditions with four children drinking their body weight in milk followed by a trip to the livestock barns and I'll leave out the details of the horror that followed but a speedy departure and a change of clothes was required for all of us.  From that day on, my father issued a decree that the All You Can Drink Milk booth was off limits until we were on the way OUT of the fairgrounds, never again to be visited on the way in, and that rule stands to this very day.
The fair is a constant, comforting, familiar but ever changing piece of the Minnesota landscape and I am always shocked when I meet someone who grew up here but has never been.  That's the strangest thing I can imagine because missing the fair is simply not done.  In my family, fair time is our holy season.  Vacation days are taken, all other plans and obligations are put on hold, strategies are laid out in the days and week preceding the fair.  The new food list is pored over and disseminated in loving detail and with palpable anticipation.  New walking shoes are broken in well before the start because wussing out over a blister or sore feet will result in years of ridicule, a stock of sunscreen is laid in and appropriate headgear is tested and made ready.  Children of the family are indoctrinated from birth that these are sacred days, not to be fraught with whining, fighting or pooping out early.  If we had an official family religion, the Grandstand is our cathedral, the crowd noise our hymns and the Space Tower our ascent to the heavens.
There's me!
While the food is, obviously, a huge draw, the fair has innumerable attractions that truly requires more than just one trip to appreciate them all.  The Creative Arts building houses everything from needlework and woodcraft to Bundt cakes and jellies, all lovingly created and proudly displayed.  I am overwhelmed every year by the incredible beauty created by people all over the state.  Exquisite handmade lace, gorgeous embroidered table linens, jewel colored jams and jellies displayed and lit like pieces of art and baked goods nestled behind a frustrating glass barrier that keeps you from burying your face in the deliciousness that they promise.  You could spend the day in that building and still not see everything, it is a museum in its own right.
They kick you out for licking the glass.


Being a farm-centric state, the Agriculture/Horticulture building is the centerpiece of the fairgrounds, an enormous and beautiful art deco exterior holds many strange and mysterious things for a child raised in the city.  To me, it was like visiting a foreign land, complete with a language all its own.  To this day, I come out of that building knowing something I did not know when I walked in.  This year I learned about the gladiator style fight to the death between old and young queen bees and the shifting political scene inside a beehive. Apples, flowers, grains and sugar beets are displayed as lovingly as the quilts and cakes in the Creative Arts building.  This building also houses one of the more unusual art mediums you've ever seen...seed art.  Unbelievably detailed, painstakingly executed and sometimes surprisingly political, this is a wonder of creativity that I could never begin to accomplish.
Yep, all seeds
The Fine Arts building is more like an art gallery, again I marvel at the huge amount of beauty created by the people of my state.  While I cannot create art, I am an appreciative and mesmerized audience.  You move seamlessly from the hustle and bustle of the fairgrounds with the noise and crowds to a collection of art that rivals high end galleries.  It's a different atmosphere in the Fine Arts building, the pace is slower, it's quieter and even a bit reverent in those rooms.  I always find the Fine Arts building calming, a nice little quiet time in the midst of the fair.
There is some really beautiful stuff in there.
The Dairy building is where you find the quintessential Minnesota fair thing...the butter busts of Princess Kay and her court.  Seriously, life sized busts of 7 young women carved from butter.
Nope, not a metaphor, butter busts.

You can visit the booths of a variety of politicians, home improvement services, foods and products from all over the world.  The Miracle of Birth center is the cutest place in the entire grounds, the grandstand houses world class musical entertainment and a host of gadgets, tcotchkes and stuff you never knew you needed but you must bring them home NOW.

My little family has our own carved in stone tradition, we go to the fair early in the morning on the first Monday of the fair.  There is no better event that takes place during the entire fair than the herding dog trials.  I adore this event, not because the incredible skills of these dogs are a wonder to behold, but for the rookie class.  I love, love, love the rookies. Don't get me wrong, the experts are ah-mazing, but my heart will always by firmly held by the rookies.  These dogs are VERY new to the world of herding, most have been at it less than a year and it shows.  The dogs and their handlers have four minutes to get three uncooperative sheep through a series of obstacles and into a small pen.  The experts practically snap their fingers and the sheep obey immediately.  The rookies have not earned the respect of the sheep and it shows.  First of all, the rookies get SUPER excited to see the sheep when they are let  into the ring, the sheep are not nearly as happy and initially do their damndest to get the hell out of there with a lot of milling about and bumping into each other.  The rookies do a lot of romping about punctuated with belly crawling and straight up laying down (this is hard work, y'all).  Usually the sheep split off and then all hell breaks loose as the hapless rookies have no idea how to handle three separate sheep when the single cluster of sheep was barely manageable.  The handler tries to communicate commands to the rookie either through whistles or voice commands.  It goes well for the first thirty seconds or so but deteriorates quickly once the sheep realize they're dealing with a newbie.  By about 2:30, the handler has usually resigned him/her self to the fact that those sheep are not going into the pen.  The rookies are usually having too much fun to notice that they've failed.  This year, two handlers decided that it would be a good idea to train Corgis to herd sheep...it was not.  The sheep seemed confused as hell as to what they were even seeing, much less that they were supposed to obey it.  The Corgis, to their credit, did their best to keep up but have you EVER seen a Corgi's legs?  By the end of the four minutes, each on of those poor little guys had to be carried out of the arena, probably to nap for the remainder of the day.  However, the Corgis were no match, entertainment wise, to the clueless trainer that attempted to train a Husky as a herding dog a few years ago.  Huskies are working dogs, yes, but herding is definitely not in their wheelhouse.  Not. Even. Close.  This dog was so damn happy to see the sheep, there was barking, there was cavorting, there was that thing dogs do with their head and paws at floor level and their butts wiggling in the air.  The sheep were having none of it, moving as a group, they led this Husky to every part of the arena, managing to miss every single obstacle.  The even tried taking refuge by surrounding the handler for a moment until the Husky, barking happily hurtled toward them with reckless abandon, stopping only after a graceful leap over two of the sheep and literally scaring the pee out of the third.  The clock ticked down as the sheep leaned into the handler, the Husky danced and barked and the handler reassessed his life choices.  Time ran out and Dot, the expert clean up dog, shot into the arena to restore order.  The sheep seemed glad to see her and dutifully followed her out of the ring.  The handler called his dirty, happy, goofball of a dog to his side and gratefully acknowledged the largest and loudest applause of the day.  The Husky seemed to be satisfied. 

So there you have it, my loving ode to the Minnesota State Fair, start making your plans now for next year.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Thank You For Playing

I'm pretty savvy about stuff.  As a natural born skeptic, I don't fall for much.  In this day and age, more and more scams and rip offs emerge on an almost hourly basis.  Sadly, a lot of people get taken for a ride and, in some cases, lose everything.  I recently saw a story about a computer programmer that someone tried the IRS scam on and he turned the tables in delicious fashion.  Those stories are awesome and hopefully, a lesson for all of us.

Once upon a time, we'd get the odd call on our home phone.  My method of dealing with them when they'd call for my beloved (usually butchering pronunciation of our last name, a tip off) was to burst into noisy tears and demand they tell me where the son of a bitch got himself off to leaving me alone with all these kids and no car and who the hell did he think he was anyway. The response from the other end of the line usually ranged from apologetic to sympathetic to extremely uncomfortable stammering but the end result was the same: I'd never hear from them again.  Bonus that I'd get to hone my acting skills at the same time.

I got a good one the other day, I'm sure you've heard of it, the "Windows Tech Support" call.  My call came in the form of Todd (I'm betting not his real name) who magically detected a serious problem with my computer and needed remote access to fix it. It being a bit of a slow day and this kind of shit pissing me off to no end, I decided to have a little fun with ToddNotTodd.
Our journey together begins when he tells me to get in front of my computer so he can talk me through the next steps, I happily comply (honing my acting skills again, YAY!). I immediately interrupt ToddNotTodd to tell him I turned it off because that's what they say to do on TV shows if your computer is broken and that ALWAYS fixes everything.  ToddNotTodd tells me I didn't need to do that but okay.  So we wait together while my imaginary computer reboots, I whistle tunelessly and he sighs a few times.  My imaginary computer rebooted, ToddNotTodd starts his instruction again, telling me to double click on "My Computer" on the start menu.  I say okee dokee and tell him that I've opened the start menu and clicked restart because I know that's different than turning it off and on again.  ToddNotTodd says "No!", and rather sharply, I must say.  I apologize profusely and tell him that it's showing the Windows picture and that's a good thing, right?  ToddNotTodd says that's fine, he seems a bit bothered at this point but is determined to help me.  I tell him about my five cats while we wait. ToddNotTodd seems less than enthusiastic to hear about about Boots, Sassy, Fluffy, Miss Priss and Tim.

My computer freshly rebooted, we are ready to proceed.  ToddNotTodd, a new spring in his step, gets back to the business at hand, getting me to allow him into my financials.  We move through the process slowly and on step two, I interrupt to tell him to wait a minute, Miss Priss has pulled the mouse cord loose and it doesn't work.  I tell ToddNotTodd not to worry, I can fix it by turning my computer off and on again.  I receive an anguished "DON'T DO THAT!" from the other end of the phone.  I tell ToddNotTodd it's okay, the computer will be ready in a couple on minutes.  ToddNotTodd thinks I'm low hanging fruit, too dumb to function, so he hangs in there for another restart.  I tell him how I tried to make a standing rib roast last night and after it came out of the oven, two of the cats and the dog knocked it onto the floor and we ended up having Taco John's instead and I don't usually eat that kind of food because of my digestion. ToddNotTodd is disinterested and is muttering continuously, I think it might be some kind of calming mantra.
Fourth restart finished, ToddNotTodd decides to sally forth, he has a mission to complete and failure is clearly not an option.  We start over, as I've forgotten by now what it was he wants me to do and we get three steps in when I tell him my computer just made a beep sound and I know that can't be good so what should we do? At this point, ToddNotTodd loses his head completely and shouts "DON'T, WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T TURN IT OFF!" I respond with "Turn it off? Whatever you say, Todd!"
Who he thought he was dealing with.
Who he WAS dealing with.

Perhaps ToddNotTodd made a tearful plea to his God for a moment or two because there  is a long pause before he speaks again.  In very careful and measured tones, he starts again, enunciating every instruction as clearly as he possibly can while I make him repeat every single direction three times before acting on it.  I make him start over twice.  I believe ToddNottTodd has begun drinking from a hideout flask at this point because all the life has gone out of his demeanor, he seems sad and a little defeated.  I ask him if he's accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  ToddNotTodd does not respond.  I tell him I accidentally turned to computer off again and ToddNotTodd becomes more than a little put out.  By now, we've been at it for almost 30 minutes and I have an appointment in less than an hour.  While ToddNotTodd weeps and bangs his head on his desk, I reveal my true nature and tell him that there was no way in hell this was going to end with a success on his part.  I tell him I hope I gave him a migraine and he should find a more honest way to make a living.  ToddNotTodd called me a foul name and hung up on me.  I don't think we're friends anymore.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

It's Not A PARTY Party

There is a cultural paradigm that I don't completely understand and, try as I might, cannot embrace.  I speak of the (Insert Something Here) party.  I'm not talking costume, kegger, Super Bowl or dance party; I'm talking the kind of party that involves demonstrations, catalogs and a huge, steaming slice of guilt. I have been to just a few of these events (I say event because, in no way do I consider them real parties) only out of a deep love for the friends who invite me.

The last one I attended was a Tupperware(tm) gathering. I was not planning to go but my very dear friend who was hosting called me an hour before it was due to start in a state of advanced panic that no one but her daughter was coming.  I love her so I went.  And that's when the trouble started.  Upon arriving at the soiree, I met Debbie the Tupperware(tm) lady.  Debbie is a true believer, a true Tupperware(tm) zealot, a high priestess of the Church of Plastic Food Storage and Other Plastic Items You Never Knew You Needed (CPFSOPIYNKYN for short). First off, High Priestess Debbie is a toucher, not a pat on the shoulder or too long handshake kind of toucher, but the kind that will rest a hand on your should when standing behind you while making her sales pitch...repeatedly, kind of toucher.
A little like that, yeah.

So right away High Priestess Debbie is giving me the willies with all the unnecessary touching, this does not bode well for the rest of the fete, but because I love my friend, I suppress my usual reaction to unwelcome touching and sally forth. HP Debbie is a bundle of energy, I'll give her that, she rocketed around the room with the kind of frenetic energy usually only seen in overstimulated toddlers and that thing Will Smith set loose in "Men In Black"

Yup, exactly.
She was a sight to behold, both her energy and enthusiasm were boundless, I do admire that kind of dedication so long as they don't try to suck me down their particular rabbit hole. That, however, is EXACTLY the goal of these affairs. Of course they're going to sell you loads of shit you MUST HAVE NOW or you will have a sad, unfulfilled life and will die alone. So you buy the shit.  But that's not all, you see. If you're smart, you buy your shit, fake a seizure and get the hell out of there before it goes any further.  I was overtired, hungry and my reflexes are not what they used to be so I did not quickly take the necessary steps to protect myself from what came next.

HP Debbie did not achieve her lofty position within the Tupperware(tm) corp by being complacent, no siree! She got there by sucking people into her vortex and getting them to agree to things they never would have dreamed themselves capable of doing outside of the mysterious and heady confines of a Tupperware(tm) fete. First, she tells you that you have the perfect personality to be a Tupperware(tm) consultant and that becoming one is a life-changing experience on par with orgasms or finding out that chocolate cures cancer, aging and makes you thin and hot.  She barely misses a beat when you find the strength within you to decline and parries with the suggestion (and I use that word loosely) that you host a party of your own.  When the temptations of all the free shit and discounted items that will rain down like manna from the gods don't work on you, she drops the Fat Man and Little Boy of guilt on your head. If you book a party, your friend, the one you love enough to come to this shindig, will get gifts and credits and discounts and if your really love her and she means anything to you at all and if you're any kind of friend and not a complete bastard coated bastard with a creamy bastard center dipped in bastard sauce with colorful bastard sprinkles you'll do it.

I tried to stand my ground, I hemmed, I hawed, I hedged, I broke...she got me. With my remaining backbone, I pleaded my case down to a "Facebook Party" so I could have all the benefits and none of the work. Whatever, by that point I truly believed I was never getting out of that room unless I agreed to something. I handed over a $140 check for the shit I purchased and beat a hasty retreat before I could betray any more of my beliefs that night.

I don't know how I got here.
I got home, back to the safety of my den and into the arms of my beloved, dazed, exhausted and salsa streaked, but whole and alive. I made it through the darkness and all the many dangers that threatened me, but damn it, I survived.  I immersed myself in my normal life and slowly put the events of that night behind me until a couple of weeks passed and my shit didn't arrive. WHERE IN THE HELL was my microwave breakfast maker and my vegetable keeper system?  I had been convinced that my life was incomplete without them by HP Debbie and was adrift and consumed by anguish without them. I did notice my check had been cashed posthaste.  Finally, the Holy Grail of kitchen items arrived and at last, the clouds parted and the skies turned blue again as I unboxed the items that I had been assured would change my life.

The microwave breakfast maker with the poached egg inserts (add. $8) emerged from the box like The Birth Of Venus as a choir of angelic voices heralded the arrival of all that is good and beautiful and purple plastic on this earth.  At last! I will be able to make omelets and French toast and poached eggs in 2 1/2 minutes any time I want to! It doesn't matter that I never wanted to before, I CAN.  A quick wash and dry and I'm ready to poach some eggs, don't care that it's 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon, I can poach eggs in the microwave.  I follow the instructions to the letter, I poke the yolk like I'm supposed to even though it's counter-intuitive, I do it. I set the timer for 2 and a half minutes, per the booklet. I push start and breathlessly watch the numbers tick down to silky, poached perfection.  It all goes as planned until the timer shows :27 and BANG! the lid pops off, the unit jumps like it was stung and egg suddenly coats the window of the microwave.  
My view now blocked, I can only imagine what's happening as further bangs and a strange hissing noise now fill the kitchen.  The cats have since fled the room, leaving me to face whatever is trying to escape the microwave on my own.  I cautiously, and with shaking hands, push "Cancel" to stop further mutation of the eggs within.  Opening the microwave after a couple of shots of liquid courage, I encounter carnage my kitchen has not seen since the Great Peeps slaughter of '03. Bits of egg have flown everywhere, restrained only by the door of the appliance, I owe it a life debt that can never be repaid.
Okay, maybe not QUITE.

Cautious but undeterred, I repeat the process and set the timer for 2 minutes. While the bangs and hissing return, nothing explodes this time, I am encouraged.  Opening the microwave, all appears to be well so I carefully open the purple, kidney shaped wonder that shall change the lives of all that use it to find solidified eggs.  This is not what is supposed to happen, poached eggs are supposed to be runny and gooey and gorgeous and sexy and not the approximate texture and appearance of a golf ball.  THIS SHALL NOT STAND.  I go in once more, setting for 1:30 this time.  The microwave gamely chugs on, doing its job without drama or argument. I am encouraged by the lack of fuss or fanfare from within the purple confines of the breakfast maker, I think we've done it.  The oven finishes its work and happily lets me know it's time for some lovely poached eggs.  Or not, once again, the breakfast maker with poached egg inserts (add. $8) has made a mockery of all I've been trying to accomplish.  The yolks are again hard and unyielding while the whites are still clear and only barely cooked.  Fine, I don't even want effing poached effing eggs any more.  Stupid eggs. Stupid breakfast maker. Stupid poached egg inserts (add. $8). Stupid Tupperware(tm). Stupid HP Debbie.

By now, I'm covered with sadness and bits of egg as a lay on the floor in the fetal position while the cats happily gorge on scattered chunks of weird, rubbery orange and white material that once was innocent, unspoiled eggs.  Damn me for what I have done to the eggs, the microwave and the kitchen at large.

Unfortunately for HP Debbie, this is the moment she chose to call to hear all about my Facebook Party that wasn't a party at all.  Parties are fun and have people and fun and not Tupperware(tm).  Oh Debbie, just no.  To say she was disappointed when I told her the entire thing had slipped my mind completely, is a bit of an understatement.  She tried her damndest to keep the dream alive by offering to extend the time another week. I finally told her that another week wasn't going to make a difference as I really had no desire to continue this charade and I was little sorry about that.  I could hear HP Debbie deflating, turning back into just Debbie, her powers gone, her hold over me broken at last, I was free.  Free to reclaim the word PARTY, to bring it back to its former glory, to reestablish its identity once again.  This is my gift to the world, I have liberated the word party from this sales pitch prison and that is, perhaps, the destiny I was born to fulfill.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

To My Family

As we come the the close of "the year of firsts", I need to pay tribute to my family.  I have these three sisters, you see, and I don't know that I have ever told them how truly bad ass I think they are.  I had to watch from afar for most of the year from hell as they juggled everything.  They had jobs they had to do, they had families that needed them and they had these two parents that careened off the rails at the same time.  They managed to handle it all, work as an incredible team and still love each other when the dust settled.  I don't know if they realized just how mammoth an undertaking that was, it was just something they had to do.  They coordinated doctor's appointments, emergency room trips, long term and rehabilitative care; they arranged cleaning, repair and emptying our beloved family home and no one hated each other when it was over.  I am not afraid of our family drifting apart because these incomparable women are made of the kind of glue that never, ever loses its strength.  I am in awe of them and I doubt I could ever come close to adequately expressing how much I love them.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention my brothers in law, the men who slogged through that mess with them.  In a day and age when something like one in three marriages end in divorce, they have chosen so well.  Four of us, all 20 years in and we're all here, still together and that's a hell of a thing.  These men that arrived in our family 25 and 30 years ago walked through fire with us and lightened the load that threatened to bury us last year.  They are my brothers, my friends and the men I admire the most because they love my sisters and endured that terrible year with patience, grace and an unbelievable amount of manual labor.  There is no way we could have made it through without you, we are so lucky.

Their kids put up with their lives being upended as well.  They pitched in and did the heavy lifting, the cleaning and whatever else was needed, they showed us what wonderful adults they are and will be. They put up with moms that weren't as available, that were maybe more fragile than they'd ever seen and dads that were perhaps feeling helpless and unsure.  These kids are our legacy and I'm not worried about what kind of people they're going to be when they grow up because I've already seen what they're made of.  I'm so proud of them.

My husband felt as bewildered and helpless as I did, but never let me see that.  He kept me calm when I became frantic and guilt ridden that I wasn't down there in the trenches with my sisters.  He sat on the floor next to me when I'd finally crack and dissolve into sobs because it seemed my world was ending.  He never complained when I left every other week and came back wrecked because I didn't want to be here, but there.  I won the lottery when I married that man.

My boys saw their mom falling apart at the seams and showed me what wonderful men they're going to be.  They did everything in their power to make it better and they succeeded, I don't know if I've ever told them how much they helped me during that awful time.  I see so much of their father's deep compassion in my boys, they already are good men.

The extended family saved our sanity time and time again.  They showed up and did whatever needed to be done, dirty work included.  They reminded us again and again that we were not doing this all alone and that they always and forever have our backs.  I know our cousins will forever bring us joy and laughter and that feeling that the world can never break us because we have them.  My earliest memories are of them and my deepest love is for them.

The aunts are the old guard, they have the stories and the memories of what came before all of us.  They are the grande dames and the mothers of us all now.  These three women are our pillars and our roots.  They knew mom and dad before they were mom and dad, they loved us all from the beginning and we owe so much to their influence in our lives.

Our non-blood family showed us that family isn't always family.  They loved us and supported us and did not leave us when things got bad.  Mom and dad's oldest friends stuck through it with them until the bitter end and held us up as we waded through our grief, we did not drown because of these people.  They were a life raft, they were the hug from mom and dad that we needed as we buried our parents and said those painful goodbyes.

I don't know how I will ever repay these incredible people that got us through, there is nothing I can say except thank you and I love all of you more than I can ever possibly express.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Getting It All Out

In trying to not let the bad stuff creep into this generally happy space I've attempted to create here, I have come to realize that I've hamstrung myself quite a bit.  Last year sucked, it sucked more than I ever imagined anything could actually suck and still be survivable and I'm still not put back together yet. There it is, I'm not there yet but I'm trying.  The world has become dark and scary and finding patches of light has become harder and harder but we manage to do so, we have to.  I am finding that I have to detox from the news and the internet from time to time because I'm far more fragile than I thought. Sometimes the sad and scary stuff overwhelms me, I want to talk to my mom and I can't and everything just seems that much worse.  I haven't written a word for several months because I really didn't want to keep on the "poor me, my parents died" theme but you know what? My parents died and while grownup me accepts and understands it all, the me that still wants her mom and dad to talk to when the world is ugly and scary doesn't understand and will never accept that they are gone and not coming back.  These two factions have been at war and have definitely handicapped me in a lot of ways, but I'm trying.

I figure if I just lay it all out and organize it, I can start to shed some of the darkness and really step back into the lighter place I normally occupy, so bear with me for a bit.

For starters, 2016 really needs to take it down a notch, from mom, David Bowie and Alan Rickman to Prince and Ali, can we be done for a while, please?

I try to keep my little corner of the blogosphere fairly politic free, so I'm just going to do this once. I hate what our system has become. We LOVE to hold ourselves up as this shining example of democracy and, in this woman's opinion, we are screwing it up so hard.  I tire of paying a bunch of people to do nothing.  If the rest of us went to work and said it out loud that we had no intention of doing our jobs because we don't like the other people in the office, our asses would be out the door while the words still hung in the cartoon speech bubble over our heads.
I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend the reality that someone like Donald Trump is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land.  To people who support him, I am not going to vilify you or call you names, I just want to say one thing.  I am so sorry that things are going so badly in your life, that you are so afraid and beaten down that embracing a man with nothing to offer but hate, isolation and fear seems like the only way back.  I hope you find something to believe in, something to bring you joy before it is too late.  My dearest wish is that your world, your life, your situation improves to the point that you have room for hope and joy and love again.  It's dark as hell right now, but remember that even in these tense and troubling times, people are good, we are good and the only way through the dark stuff is by reaching for the light.  There is light, I believe it with every bit of my soul.  All is not lost and we're going to get through it the only way we can, together.
I refuse to let the ugliness of rhetoric, bluster and political posturing drive me under the bed or into a bunker.  I do not believe my country is a hate filled place, I know it's good, despite what they show us on the news.  I am not going to let CNN, Twitter, Facebook or Fox rob me of my joy and my optimism, it's mine and you can't have it.  I will share it with you, I will help you find some of your own and I will celebrate with you when you do. I challenge you to find some joy in each day.  Not a chuckle, not a fleeting ghost of a smile, but something that when you think of it later in the day, you smile and get all warm and fuzzy.  Go play Pokemon and walk around your neighborhood, stomp in the puddle, pop the bubble wrap, eat the damn cookie. Just fricking do it and quit being an old poop.  I'm sure I'm sounding naive and perhaps even a bit simple to some, but to the rest, I ask you to give it a shot.  You might live longer, or at least you'll be happier while you last.  Take a step back, turn off the world and just find something that brings you joy, you need it, trust me. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I'd Take That Class

My eldest was home for a few days last week and it was great for both of us.  I miss his company and he keenly misses just being home like the good old days before he was paying his own rent and buying his own groceries.  The discussion of how this whole business of being an adult is a lot harder than we thought when we were younger led to a discussion of what we wish we had known before we moved out. 
As a result, I've come up with a class everyone should take before moving out on their own.  I call it "Adulting 101", here is the course overview:

Money management:
  • Balancing a checkbook: the reality of "available balance" vs "actual balance"
  • Making and sticking to a budget that includes buying your own toothpaste and underwear
  • Taxes 101: how to fill all that shit out
  • Paychecks: who the hell is FICA and why do they take my money
  • Should I buy weed or beer?: prioritizing food, clothing and shelter
  • Entertainment on the cheap: it's not necessary to steal shopping carts
  • Paying bills: due dates are not suggestions, they fucking mean it
  • Renting that first apartment: questions to ask, what you have to pay up front and no, it should not smell like that
Feeding Yourself
  • Cereal: not always the answer, why toast matters
  • Preparing rice 87 ways, including some that don't suck!
  • Eggs: miracle food that even you can cook
  • When to throw it away: weird smells, bizarre colors and loss of structural integrity
  • Leftovers: why they won't actually kill you if eaten in a timely manner
  • Real butter: life is too short to use the fake shit
  • Nothing has an eternal shelf life: what not to buy more than one of
  • Buying in bulk: put half back, you don't have that much storage space
  • How to afford meat that isn't hot dogs or chicken nuggets
  • The freezer: not the key to food's eternal life, CLEAN IT OUT
  • Peanut butter: not the only protein source available to you
  • Chunky milk: you're not fooling anyone, you're not making yogurt in there and no, it should not smell like that
  • I don't know what the hell to do with quinoa, either, you're on your own
Laundry and Clothing
  • If it says "Dry Clean Only": why they mean it
  • You will never understand what all those symbols mean, no one does
  • Washing red things: it's going to bleed so keep away from whites 
  • Bedding DOES need to be washed on a regular basis: it shouldn't smell like that
  • Disappearing socks: you will never know why or how, a lesson in acceptance
  • Hot Topic: stop buying your clothes there before you graduate
  • Suits: you're going to need one sooner than you think
  • And nice shoes
  • And dress socks
  • And a "good" coat, your Arctic Cat snowmobile jacket will not cut it any more
  • You will never wear your letter jacket after your freshman year in college, buy the class ring instead, you won't wear that either, but it will take up less room in your tiny apartment
  • When to wash: no, it should not smell like that, do it now
You're Going To Get Sick But You're Not Dying
  • Surviving the flu: puking when you're sick is ten times worse than puking when you're drunk
  • When to call mom, the doctor, the ambulance or summon your God
  • Roommates: they aren't any better in a crisis than you are
  • Chicken noodle soup: voodoo magic that cures it all
  • What you should always have in the medicine cabinet and why pepto bismol is a gift from God
  • Alcohol is not a cure all: but a hot toddy will help a cold (this is a practical lesson, prepare accordingly)
  • It's not a tumor: headaches, hysteria and hypochondria
  • I think it's broken: when an ACE bandage just won't do
  • It might be infected: no, it should not smell like that
You Wanted A Car
  • What is that noise: when to turn the radio up and when to take it to the shop
  • Gas or food: the hard choice
  • When you just can't stop is past time to get the brakes done
  • Insurance: the most necessary evil and how it can save your ass
  • The backseat: not a dumpster, clothes hamper or junk drawer, CLEAN IT OUT
  • No, it should not smell like that: how to tell if something is living in your car
  • Winter driving: it sucks and you should avoid it as much as you can
  • Money pit: get used to putting money in constantly, good training for home ownership
  • Preventive maintenance: things to do before it starts smoking
You Live Here
  • Furniture buying: why you don't buy upholstered items from Craigslist (this will be an interactive lesson, please wear old clothes)
  • Beds: a mattress pad is not all you need, buy some damn sheets
  • Kitchen items: what to buy and what to steal from work
  • Paper plates are not considered fine tableware: some alternatives
  • Cleaning the bathroom: no, that's NOT frosted glass
  • Light up your life: why you need more than that one lamp
  • Decorating: why life sized cutouts from the bar are not a good idea
  • Pillows: you can wash them but you're probably better off throwing them out and getting new
  • Cleaning the toilet: no, it should not smell like that
I would have taken this class in a heartbeat.  Maybe I'll call the high school and offer my services.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Goodbye, Mom

I’ve had this image in my head of mom and dad.  Dad has been standing by the door these past couple of months, his jacket and cap on, mom’s coat over his arm and the car running, waiting for her to finally head out.  He was the the Irish leave, just slipping out the door and she, the Minnesota goodbye.  

Mom never taught us how to cook a standing rib roast, she didn't show us how to keep a perfect home with sparkling, streak free windows and things like knitting or crafts were forever a mystery to her. The things she taught us were far and away more important. She taught us to be passionate, dedicated and active members of our world. That it is possible and necessary to make a difference in our neighborhood, our school, our city and the greater world. We learned that anything is possible if you’re ballsy and determined enough. We were shown how strong a woman can be, how much power we have and how we could use it.  

We learned to be fearless from my mom, we learned that we had a voice and that speaking up was “what you do”. If Gayle had a catchphrase, it was “It’s what we do.” . You don't question, you don't wonder why, you don't think twice, you speak up, you take action, you take a stand...it’s what you do.  You stick up for people, individuals or groups, you don't let people get hurt if you can stop it and you never, ever let ANYONE get away with doing damage to the people you love, it’s what we do. 

Mom taught us how to be welcoming, embracing and how to bring people together. Gatherings at the Goodrich house were joyous, raucous and marvelous. Easter and Thanksgiving were the “sit down” holidays but there was always room for an extra chair or three.  The dinners lasted for hours and the world’s ills were usually solved before dessert.  Anyone could participate in the discussion with the unspoken rules of “stay on topic” and “don’t be mean”.  Christmas and the Fourth of July were events to behold.  Christmas at 2258 WAS Christmas, not only for us, but for so very many others, the open house became part of their holiday tradition.  Independence Day became the stuff of legend, due to my father’s love of explosives, ongoing skirmishes with St. Thomas security, disappearing Rice Krispie treats and the ever changing cast of characters, with Tom and Gayle at the center of it all.  Holidays were never meant for just family and there was almost always an honorary family member or ten included in the day. Strangers were never strangers for long, the seamlessness of being brought in and adopted into the family was something magical. You were welcome, you were embraced, you were loved. That’s what we do.

Mom showed us that there will never be anything as important as family. My sisters and I have been told repeatedly during this past year by doctors, nurses, social workers and the like how extraordinary we are that we haven't been fighting with each other, we have all been surprised by that.  It simply never occurred to us to behave that way, in times of crisis, you pull together and get things done, it’s what you do. Besides, when you’re not sharing a bathroom or cutting the hair off each other’s Barbie dolls, there’s really not much to fight about.  When her sister, Barb, moved back to Minnesota, mom added extra places at the table and we got down to the business of getting to know our cousins from the wilds of Michigan and now we can't imagine what life was like before they came home to us. When Grandma Summers got sick, mom was there for doctor’s appointment and hospital admissions because that’s what you do.  When my husband, Dan, lost his sister, mom and dad and Jenny came up to Crookston for the funeral, even though they had never met his sister. Dan was well and truly puzzled why they came and mom simply said “You're family, it’s what we do.” Growing up, I never could have imagined just how much this family they created would mean to me, but I know that there is nothing as sacred, as special or as wonderful as these people. She taught us that family can be so much more than what you're born into, family is what you create by who you love and with whom you surround yourself. Family is in laws, cousins, nieces and nephews, it's grandchildren and best friends. Family is neighbors and coworkers, it's the best legacy you can leave behind. Mom taught us that love is love and family is everything.  She and dad gave me the best gift I never even knew I wanted in this family. They taught us how rich you are when your family surrounds you. The past year has taught us how right they were, we never would have made it through without this family they created. We have been supported, helped and loved by the people she made our family. It’s what you do. It’s what we do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Things We Leave Behind

My dad died a couple of weeks ago, it's been a horrible and long road this year. He is done suffering and out of pain, we will miss him forever but we know it was time to go.  I feel like I should be more grief stricken at losing him, but I keep thinking about the fact that he was supposed to die a long time ago.  He had a massive heart attack in 1990 that should have killed him at the age of 48 but it didn't.  We got 25 bonus years and he got to see all the things he wanted to see, all four of his daughters grown and married to good men, all eleven of his grandchildren born and all old enough to have good solid memories of him and even two great grandchildren.  He was never "supposed" to see any of it but he beat the hell out the odds.  How sad can we be, knowing he got 25 extra years with us?  I'm sure I'm going to crumble at some point, but for now, it's okay.
We also lost mom this year, although she is still technically alive, her Alzheimer's has taken her from us with even less pity than death. I wish she was dead. There, I said it. Sometimes I feel like a horrible person for thinking, much less saying that thought out loud, but most days I don't because death is kinder than this disease.

We've spent the past couple of months getting their house ready to sell, another death like loss.  My parents bought that house in 1972, I was four years old and have only vague, gauzy memories of living anywhere else.  So many great and notable things that happened to me from the age of four are centered on that house.
Three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a spooky basement and that incredible front porch were the center of my world. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in that neighborhood was a wonderful thing.  Tons of kids and the St. Paul Seminary campus across the street was basically an extension of our own yards. The Mississippi river was just a couple of blocks away and we were walking distance to Davanni's for pizza or Mr. Orth's tiny little store for candy (don't tell mom we crossed Cretin Ave and I'll buy you some).  The families in our corner of the world were prolific, very few had only one or two kids, the rest had at least four, Us, Cheneys, Nichols, Faricys, Brandts, Vellengas, Hoffmans, Gassmans, Hannigans, Lepaks, Mauns...the list was seemingly endless and there was little chance you wouldn't find someone to play with, sometimes more than you wanted.  Games of Ditch and Spider went on for hours into the summer evenings, kids spread all over "the Sem" and our parents frequently congregating on one of the facing front porches to theoretically keep an eye on us.  

My dad hung a rope swing on a huge cottonwood tree directly across from our house that quickly became a legendary thing.  The knot took on a life of its own with the frequent additions of old t shirts, torn bath towels and the like until it was the size of a small child and very comfortable on the hundreds of butts that gave it purpose.  The Nichols boys next door could usually be counted on for a heart stopping, thrilling push that sent you soaring over the street, a moment both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  My sister Emily was just a tiny little thing, maybe four or so, and was completely fearless on that thing, much to my mother's eternal horror.  An "around the world" push took you in a huge circle, occasionally swinging just far enough to touch the trunk of the tree as you went past, an overzealous push could send you painfully bouncing off the trunk like a ball in a pinball machine but you'd take it like a man.  A true test of your kid credit was when one of your pals would grab your ankles and spin you as fast as they could.  The trick was keeping your legs locked around the rope and a light lunch. The swing lasted until St. Thomas College bought the Seminary campus and the grounds crew began to wage war on us neighborhood kids.  It took a lot of concentrated effort and I'm betting a whole lot of swearing to get rid of that swing, culminating in a very memorable day when the groundskeeper tied it to the bumper of his pickup truck in an attempt to make the rope snap.  It didn't break, but both the bough of the tree and his bumper did.  Served him right, the fun killing rat bastard.

The process of clearing out a lifetime's of stuff is not entirely heartbreaking, although heartbreak is certainly one component.  Lots of feelings pile on, you have sadness, of course, but there are also moments of fondness, a lot of happy memories bubble to the surface and we found plenty to puzzle over, more than we imagined. 
My family is quirky, to say the least. We found the mundane, usual kind of stuff you'd expect from 40 plus years, four kids and eleven grandchildren, but then we started to find the weird stuff, the unexpected stuff and then the downright mysterious.
The usual stuff included boxes upon boxes of photographs, scrapbooks and a crap ton of Christmas decor.  My mother hosted all the holiday dinners and had a prodigious amount of fine china (Lenox with a 14K gold rim), stemware (Waterford, Tramore pattern) and at least three full silver service sets.  My mother used to say she was going to smash all the Waterford and the china before she died so we wouldn't fight over it until I informed her that none of us is classy enough to own it except for my oldest sister, Jenny.  We found thousands of address labels from Easter Seals and the March of Dimes, decks of playing cards, cloth napkins for every season and, inexplicably, hundreds of greeting cards for any and all occasions.  They had more magazine subscriptions than they could possibly have ever read in a month and I suspect those were the result of my father's soft heart and a schoolkid with a fundraising packet.  There was a lot of evidence of the many, many holidays hosted at that house, shown in the sheer volume of stray, forgotten serving dishes and baking pans found in the back of the kitchen cupboards.  The basement yielded a treasure trove of newspapers from as far back as the  killing of Dillinger, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon and 9/11.  He saved every newspaper from the Grand Forks flood of 1997, as it affected me and my family directly.  He had pennant sets, buttons and papers from both of the Minnesota Twins World Series wins, all carefully saved in clear plastic totes.  I have no idea what he meant to do with the Coca Cola Christmas six pack bottle sets he had accumulated, but there were decades worth down there.  Jars of nails, screws, bolts, nuts and washers were meticulously arranged on the shelves alongside oddities like the broken propellers from the model planes we used to fly together.  There were a few pieces of old furniture sitting along the wall, partially hiding the seven foot long, fully functional slide rule that he got from his brother one birthday. Emily and I found truly the only thing in the house I was really hoping to find, the ugliest mugs known to mankind.  Carved wooden beer mugs that I remember vividly from my youth. I hadn't seen them for many, many years and they turned up in the very back of the very bottom shelf in the cabinet behind the dining room door.  At first we only found two, so we decided we just wouldn't tell the other two sisters we had found them but the other two turned up a while later.  I was absolutely overjoyed that we could each have one.
They're Glorious!

Mom had all of our wedding dresses, along with my paternal grandmother's, a bridesmaid dress from her sister's wedding and a mystery white dress no one could identify.  Our baby books were all there, Jenny's (the oldest) faithfully filled in almost every page, Melissa's (number 2) pretty well filled in for the first three or so years, mine (number 3) has some stuff in it, but mostly abandoned by about the first birthday and Emily (number 4) MIGHT have her name filled in and hospital tag stuck in the pages somewhere.  A testament to good intentions swallowed whole by the reality of having four kids.

That's really what's in here
A fine vintage
Personally, I think the best thing unearthed was the jar containing my great grandmother Minnie's gallstones (a whole damn lot of them, poor woman), bottled in July of 1934.  Seriously, not even kidding.

I am so lucky to come from a family that not only appreciates the absurd but celebrates it.  We seek out the odd, relish the weird and give it a place of honor in our lives. Why would you do anything but?  I cannot wait for the day that someone notices that strange little jar on the shelf in the living room and picks it up to take a better look and is either grossed out or completely delighted by it.  My kids better take note of all my weird stuff, that's their inheritance, right there.

We've also discovered two very strange and poignant mysteries. The first contained within a nondescript manila envelope, one of many in an old trunk in what used to be my bedroom but has been a tv room/computer room/sunroom ever since I moved out.  There were several in the truck, innocuously labeled "DFL", "SCHOOL", "MISC" and one marked "ADOPTION".  Emily and I both paused for a long moment until I turned to her and said "See? I always told you you were adopted."  She still doesn't think it's funny, trust me, it is.  Along with a battered and well-loved copy of "The Best Loved Doll" was a sheaf of paperwork, completely filled out and notarized (by dad's brother Joe) for the adoption of an eight month old Korean baby girl.  They were one signature away from this adoption and never filed the paperwork.  We asked both Aunt Carol (Joe's wife) and my mom's sisters and not one of them knew anything about it.  My parents had never even mentioned to possibility of adoption to anyone, not their closest relatives or, upon further investigation, their closest friends.  I think I will always wonder what became of that child, my almost sister.
The other, even more mystifying item wasn't found until after my father died.  Carefully tucked behind the pictures of his wife, daughters and grandchildren were two other photographs, small black and white photos of a strange woman none of us had ever seen before, taken in the summer of 1958.  That's not even the most mysterious thing about them:

The fact that they're mugshots set us back on our heels a bit.  Dad would have been just a month shy of seventeen in July of 1958 and as far as we knew, hadn't been to Florida yet.  She doesn't resemble anyone we know, he never spoke of a friend in prison but carried these photos in his wallet until the day he died. I doubt we will ever know this particular story.

Finding these two mysteries made me realize that as well as I thought I knew them, my parents had secrets they kept their whole lives.  They're entitled to their secrets, aren't we all?  Maybe we shouldn't try to figure these things out, but that goes against out very nature.  It certainly puts an interesting light on my boring old parents...yeah, I can't say that with anything even close to a straight face.

Someday, I'll tell you all about them.