Practical or Practically?

We made it through another April Fool’s Day!  (Or should that be a plural Fools’?)  “April is the cruelest month…” as T.S. Eliot said.  It certainly is for those on the receiving end of an April Fool’s practical joke.

Somehow, whoever translated from Sumarian or Greek or Indo-European or whatever, they got the word wrong.  Should “practical” really have been translated as “practically”?  As in a “practically joke,” rather than a “practical joke”?

Let me explain.  If the translation really meant practical jokes, then some jokes had practical value, right?  When my mom threw a surprise party for my dad, that was both fun/funny and practical.  Unfortunately, I was upset that we kept it a secret from him.  So, I set off down the road, determined to waylay him and spill the whole story.  So, okay, I was three.  Don’t hold it against me.  (I only got to the front sidewalk.)

When I threw my mom a surprise 80th birthday party, that too was a practical joke.  Especially as it involved gifts such as 80 M&Ms, 80 sheet of toilet paper, 80 pretty paper napkins, 80…you get the picture.  We all had fun with those jokes.  Harmless, and a great deal of laughter to go with.

However, when the big boy pushed me, as a practical joke, into the swimming pool on purpose, before I could really swim–I was three–then I did indeed learn something practical.  I could automatically hold my breath underwater, I could open my eyes underwater, I could, like a dog, paddle my way to the ladder before either someone scooped my out or before I ran out of air.  Good practical lesson.  Not a good practical joke, however.  Not even a good practically a joke.  Just so you know, I was scooped out by a lifeguard, but my folks were outside the fence and I remember the frantic looks on their faces when I surfaced.  They were with me in person in a flash, but that one moment is burned in my brain.

I think I developed an aversion for practical jokes at that moment.  When a friend hosted a Halloween party years late, her mother set up a wonderful story, complete with props designed to chill the blood:  peeled grapes for eyes, cold spaghetti for blood vessels, whole peeled tomato for heart, dried fruit for ears, piece of cooked cauliflower for brain…  You can find the whole list, and the story to go with it, online, of course.  Anyway, by the time the party came around, I was so averse to such things that I wouldn’t play at all.  I stood aside and laughed as everyone else shivered and screamed.  Sigh.  What a party-pooper I was.

A good practical joke came about when I turned 50 years old.  My bonus sister (read sis-in-law) drove 45 minutes after confabbing with my principal in order to festoon my classroom with banners, garlands, and signs.  The students were delighted, of course.  She went even further by putting a beautiful cake in the faculty lounge, so every single staff member knew it was my birthday.  I had no trouble rolling over into a new decade, so that day was great fun.  She’s very good at those kinds of practical jokes.  Far beyond practically.

With permission from a fellow teacher, I stole her thunder about teaching Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” to my high school juniors.  I burst into the classroom, snarling and hollering.  “Put all your books on the floor!  Put your feet flat on the floor!  Fold those hands on top, and sit up straight!”  I ranted and raved about the trouble that teens make, and on and on.  The kids got more and more restless, and exchanged glances that said, “What’s with her today?”  Someone asked me if I was okay.  “Of course,” I snapped back.  Finally, one of the boys stood up and said, “I’m gonna get the principal.  You’re not usually like this.”  (So glad they noticed!)  My response was, “Who’s she gonna believe?  You, a student?  Or me, who’s worked with her for eight years?”  I waved at him and added, “Fine, go ahead.”  He sat down.  I was devastated!  This whole thing took about ten minutes.  It was time to debrief.  They always said they would step in to help someone in trouble, or stand up strong in any situation.  However, my little demonstration showed them that many times people don’t, which makes Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax, so much that he was put in jail, so much more dramatic.  That was very definitely a joke that was quite practical.

But my favorite isn’t really a joke at all, but it usually ends up being one anyway.  I’m often asked to spell my name.  That’s when the fun starts.  My response is, “Mary Ann, two words, no E.”  Because there is no E on the end of Ann.  “Okay,” they say, “What’s your last name.”  When I answer, “Noe [pronounced NO-EE],” they say, “Yes, that’s what I wrote: two separate words with no letter E on Ann. ”  “No, that’s my last name,” and I say it again.  “N-O-E.”  That gets one of two reactions:  Either they send me a blank look, or they burst into hysterical laughter. Some get it, some don’t.  For some, a practically joke that falls flat.  For others, great fun.

Practical jokes really don’t have to be strictly practical.  But at least they should avoid the trap of being practically a joke. Good luck with that one!

What’s In the Freezer?

March 2023

The gardening catalogs are out, and my blood is stirring.  Actually, we have one small clump of daffodils that have already sent up a reconnaissance force of about a half-dozen leaves to test the weather.  Of course, those bulbs are planted right under the pipe laying on the ground that expels water from the sump pump; hence, ground water, which is warmer than surface water.  Poor daffodils got fooled, I think, by that warmth.  Never mind, I don’t care, it’s a sign.

But if I’m going to garden, that means I should think about cleaning out the freezer from last year’s produce.

First off, way back there is a bag full of rhubarb, all cut up and ready to go into a pie.  Or I could make sauce.  Naw.  Pie. This year, maybe in two months, I’ll start seeing those fat nubs poking out of the ground, looking a bit like the red nose of an animal that’s decided it’s time to un-hibernate.  Is that even a word?  Then come those ruffled leaves, all curled up together, tight as twins sharing a womb.  Then the stalks shoot up, almost overnight, firm red and green with big umbrellas for leaves.  Suddenly, it’s rhubarb!  Okay, enough rhapsodizing.

What else is in there?

What looks like an apple pie.  It’s not the whole pie, but only the filling.  Those are Ginger Gold apples in there, which brings another memory floating up.  My bonus sister (read sister-in-law) and I make time for apple picking at Apple Holler early every fall, in order to catch the varieties we love.  The orchard trucks us out to the trees, circling around through all the labeled rows.  By the time we get to where we want to pick, we’re salivating.  From the Ginger Golds, we can wander at will and sample.  Yes, they encourage sampling while we pick!  I’ve tried some unusually named fruit that I never see in the stores.  A few years ago, I bought one of those fancy-schmancy apple peeler/corer/slicers.  I could rhapsodize over that, and the apples, but, moving on…

What else is there?

Two pounds of butter.  Okay, those aren’t produce from the garden.  When butter prices started going sky-high before Christmas, I stocked up.  Earlier pounds are already part of cookies, cakes, stollen, to say nothing of being used in the honorable practice of buttered popcorn, and, yes, to top off baked potatoes and hot veggies.  Time to bake Dutch almond bars, maybe.  Stuffed baked potatoes for dinner tonight?  Oh, yes!  Does anybody else remember when margarine was forbidden in Wisconsin?  My uncle, a trucker and overall good guy, would bring back oleo, as it was known then, back from Illinois.  The oleo came in sealed plastic bags with a little button of orange dye in the middle.  It was my job to massage the dye into the oleo, kneading it into every little corner, to turn the white stuff yellow, so it would at least look like butter.  How times change!  I took out one of the pounds of butter and gave it a little pat (pun intended), thanking it for its willingness to sacrifice itself for flavor in my baking and cooking.

Anything else in there?

Besides the bucket of ice cream, of course.  (Though I prefer Culver’s frozen custard, butter pecan especially.)  Yup, several of those frozen slabs of…something blue…to stick in a cooler.  Those can stay, seeing as how they’re not edible, thank God.  We’ve packed plenty of coolers with food and drink to haul off somewhere.  Tailgating at baseball games is lots of fun.  If we go with our son’s family, he brings a little grill, and we can go all out.  But my favorite cooler trip is to Madison’s farmers market on a summer Saturday morning.  Arrayed around the capitol building, the stands are stuffed. We can find anything and everything.  The cheese display is dangerous, because there are so many different kinds to try.  Amish pies and cookies and bread.  Buffalo meat and fish fillets.  A dozen types of mushrooms, subtly colored in pastel shades, reach up from their little boxes,.  Bunches of beets, carrots, flowers, more.  We make one round, just to see what’s there, then go back around to purchase.

My mind spools off to my mom’s big chest freezer in the basement.  My dad used to tease her about the amount of stuff she froze, and how long it resided down there.  She got him good, however, by labeling things as two or three years older than they really were.  Blueberries picked in 1967 were labeled as 1965, or earlier.  He eventually caught on, and they had a good laugh over it.  Unfortunately, the freezer died without anyone noticing, and I was in charge of removing all that thawed fruit, fish, meat…. Yuck!  Buckets and buckets of slushy food went out to the garbage.  One ugly memory for all those other good ones.

Nothing else in my freezer that needs to be used?

I look out the window as I am writing this, and can hardly wait to see grass and sunshine instead of snow!  Wishing won’t make it happen.  However, baking a pie might help alleviate the pain of waiting, as well as begin to make space for new stuff.  Excuse me while I go pull out that package of rhubarb.

Sports Conudrums

“Offsides!” I holler.  We’re watching an especially exciting football game.  Thus, the vocalization.

“No,” my husband says, “that’s not offsides.”

“Oh, okay.  Then it’s encroachment, right?”

“Nope, it was a false start.”

Wait. What?

It took more than one explanation, but I finally got it.  (Not that I’ll remember the differences…)  In case you too are wondering, offsides is a player in the neutral zone between the teams at the same time the ball is snapped.  Okay.  That takes a quick eye on the part of the officials, right?

“Encroachment,” he goes on, “is when a defensive player makes contact with an offensive player before the ball is snapped.  You do know the difference between the offense and the defense?  Offen–”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  That I do know.”  I secretly think, Sometimes all the players are offensive.  But that’s another story.

“Then what’s a false start?”  I’m beginning to think I’ll regret asking that question.

“Okay, ready?”  When I nod, he goes on.  “A false start is when an offensive line player makes any movement before the ball snaps.”

“I thought that was offsides?”

“Nope.  That happens At. The. Same. Time. The ball is snapped.”

Wait. What?

“Okay.  I’ll remember that.”  No, I won’t.  But I’m not going through it all again.

That sets me thinking about soccer.  I love watching soccer, especially when I can watch the grandson in person.  Soccer has offsides too, doesn’t it?

Wait. What?

So, I looked it up.  Mainly because my husband is a whiz with some sports, but neither of us has a clue when it comes to soccer.  Here’s what I found: An attacking player is offside if any part of their body, other than their hands and arms, is in the half of the opposing team and there isn’t another player from the opposing team between them and the goalkeeper before the ball is played forward.

Yowza!  How on earth can an official see if anything “other than hands and arms” is over the line?  How can the players keep track?

Okay.  I can do this.  So, a player with the ball can’t move forward into the opponent’s half of the field, toward the goal, unless there’s an opponent plus the goalkeeper between the player and the goal.

Um.  Sounds good on paper.  Now, we’ll see if I can transfer that to the pitch.  (See?  I do get some soccer terms right.)  Either way, I still love watching the fast action.

But I’ve stifled my enthusiasm to holler “Shoot it!” when my team gets close to the goal.  Does this mean I have to stop and count the players between the shooter and the goal?  Yes.

Now I’m going to look up the difference between a penalty kick and a penalty shoot-out…

How about the scoring in tennis?  15, 30, 40?  Crazy.  Supposedly, score was originally kept on a clock, using the hand moving a quarter of the way around each time.  Yeah?  Then 45 got shortened to 40 ‘cause 45 took too long to say.  Wait.  What?  And Love?  What’s that all about?  Love represents zero, because, according to one source, the O is like an egg, and O kinda sounds like the French word for egg, oeuf…  Right.  I’d tell you more, but it’s all too confusing!

The baseball season is starting soon, and I’ll be right back at ground zero.  I have to bite my tongue when a batter gets a hit and starts ambling towards first base, rather than taking off like a streak.  One year–and not that long ago either, as you can guess–I shouted out, “Run!  For Pete’s sake, run!”

“He can’t,” my husband informed me.

Wait.  What?

“He has to wait until the outfield catches the ball.  If it bounces, then he can run.  Which he won’t, because he’d be too close and they’d tag him out.”

Okay.  That one was easy to remember.  But I know there’s a rule out there I’m a bit fuzzy on.  Only a bit.  Well, all right, more than a bit.  The ground rule double.

All runners can advance only two bases (okay, there’s the double) if the ball goes out of play, like hitting a wall or getting lodged in the ivy at Wrigley, or…, even if the player could have scored if the ball hadn’t gone out of play.  Um…

Wait. What?

Cities of the Mind

When I visited my mom in the nursing home, occasionally she’d be sitting in the sun with her eyes closed and a smile on her face.  I knew what she was doing.  I’d ask, “Where are you, Mom?”  She’d answer without opening her eyes, “Paris, 1956.”

Considering I was with her in Paris in 1956–albeit, only nine years old–I could mentally join her at the Eiffel Tower, or stand on the sidewalk in front of the Hôtel Scribe.  Subsequent trips gave me more memories to layer on that first one, but the first one was also my mother’s, and thus gave me special pleasure.  From there, my mind would spool off into Munich, London, Kleinschmalkalden (my dad’s hometown), and on and on.

Every once in a while, a startling memory surfaces.  Like the sunny day in Salzburg when I was striding through the palace gardens singing “The hills are alive…!” under my breath.  I’m over 4,000 miles from home, and I hear, “Mrs. Noe?” coming from over my shoulder.  One of my former students.  Anyone in a service profession understands that a person is not “safe” anywhere.  Connections come out of the woodwork!  That’s not really a bad thing, to be recognized many years later.  And not only that, to be acknowledged in public yet!  It also happened when we were at John Lennon’s memorial to Strawberry Fields in Central Park.  Come to think of it, I was singing that time too.  “Strawberry Fields forever,” of course.  Maybe I need to stop vocalizing in public.

Like my mother, I am a deeply visual person.  Once I can conjure up an image of a person or a place, I’ve got the hook to the experience that goes with it.  I can easily deny never having been at so-and-so’s wedding…until my husband reminds me of the plumeria blossom behind the bride’s ear.  Yes!  I do remember that wedding!  We talked to…and they told us…and…  The visual hook did it.

I love being able to scroll through the wonderful people and places I’ve met.  I call it my “Interior Photo Album for the Nursing Home.”  Don’t even need a scrapbook.  I know my mother would approve.

I have Paris in my head, right down to the heat vent in the road right outside the Moulin Rouge, where we pretended we were Marilyn Monroe in that diaphanous dress she could hardly control.  I don’t think any of us had dresses on, but it sure was fun to watch scarves swoop up and dance around in the blast of warm air.

Far, far away from the real thing, I can climb the hill across from my grandparents’ house in Germany.  At the top, from a memorial that looks like a beer stein, I can see the house far below.  I holler and holler, but no one appears.  Too far away, I guess, though it’s worked in the past.  When we get back to the house, my aunt says, “I heard you up there!  Did you see me?  I waved a dishtowel at you, and you hollered.”  Um.  That was the group that was coming down the hill as we were going up.  And commenting on “some woman out shaking her dustcloth.”  Sigh.  I take that walk over and over when I need a smile.

I can walk down Sandy Row in Belfast, Northern Ireland, hearing my penpal and his aunt reminding my friends and me to tell people we were headed for the park, not to the Catholic church across town.  The family we visited were Protestant, and this was August, 1968.  The Troubles broke out with a vengeance in September.  But City Hall, the Crown pub with its snugs, and Sandy Row were all peaceful places when we were there.  We had only inklings of the rumblings beneath our feet, callow youth that we were.  The row houses on Sandy Row are all torn down now, but I can still walk it anytime I wish, conjuring up the hospitality and warmth from the people who lived there.

From what I hear, the main pyramid at Chichen Itza is no longer open for climbing.  But I can climb it.  The stair risers are almost impossibly tall, requiring the high-step of the best band major.  Luckily, I have fairly small feet, so could plant my foot face-on, not have to turn it sideways to climb.  I’m not a great one for heights, but if I’m there…well, I’ll take the challenge, figuring I’ll never get the chance again.  I can see the jungle spreading out at my feet, like a huge broccoli farm.  Getting down took more guts than going up.  More butt than foot.  That brings up the bus that broke down in the jungle, in the dark.  When we saw our driver take off his belt, in the hope of replacing the bus’s fanbelt, I was delegated to bargain with the driver of the bus that stopped to help, because I knew about 10 words of Spanish.  “Get us back to Cancun!” my companions hissed.  So, I did.  It was clear why people put coins in front of the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe back in the bus station in town.  Ask for a safe trip, and you just might get it.

I often traipse down Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland, Oregon, heading from the college campus down to the theater complex in the heart of the small town.  Thirty teachers from all over the country were studying Shakespeare at the Festival.  After spending a month, I have the route embedded in my memory, from the front door of the dorm, where we shared the cafeteria with wrestlers and cheerleaders one week, and Elder Hostel folk another…although one of us called the latter the Elder Hostile, because they were always pushing into line for food.  Entitled, I suppose.  But the walk usually takes me to the outdoor theater where we watched Midsummer Night’s Dream under a full moon and a warm breeze, where the backdrop was black velvet speckled with tiny lights for stars, and where the fairy king swept his cloak around the fairy queen and, because of lights on his cloak, they disappeared into the night.  Poof!  Real magic.

The mental vacations are many and varied.  Everyone needs an escape once in a while, especially if it can be somewhere filled with pleasant memories.  Whether it conjures up laughs, nostalgia, or just a restful feeling, that inner eye is a gift.  Have fun creating your own Interior Photo Album!

Plucking at Memory’s Strings

Here I am, nestled between two wonderful holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I pick the word “nestled” on purpose.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I’m determined to enjoy the next few weeks, not go crazy as time get closer.  I have to keep in mind the past holidays, and what makes them memorable, even today.  Simple things, yes, and people, mostly.

When I was a kid, we were “adopted” by my mother’s best friend and her extended family.  One set of my grandparents was dead before I was born, and the other set was behind the Iron Curtain in Germany.  For all intents and purposes, I had no grandparents, nor much in the line of blood relatives in town.  The few that were around were much older than I was.

Thanksgiving and Christmas found our extended “family” spread all over one house, with the dining room table–every single leaf installed–packed with adults.  We kids occupied card tables in the living room, sitting on anything that looked sturdy enough to hold us.  The least desirable was the piano bench, which left both parties with duffs hanging over the outer edges, and elbows that needed a traffic controller for smooth operation.  From there, it was traditional to repair to the oldest girl’s bedroom, where we played “Go Fish,” with her behind a screen in front of her closet, and us lined up with “pole” and “line” to capture prizes she attached to our fishing line.  How ingenious was that?  Get rid of the stuff you don’t want anymore while thrilling all the little kids panting for prizes.  

Christmas was even more fun.  My parents belonged to Eat Club, a group of three couples that met once a month to…eat.  What else!  Close to Christmas, they drew names for gifts, and the production line at each house went into action.  The men were all handy, and could create these crazy Rube Goldberg machines to make something simple into something vastly more complicated.  But my favorite “gift” involved Balm Barr hand cream.  Balm Barr was the favorite of one of the women, so the woman who drew her name bought a large jar of Balm Barr.  She scooped out the cream and replaced it with…you got it, shortening!  Then she slathered a layer of Balm Barr on top, just to throw her off.  Months and months later, the recipient of the “hand cream,” having used up the ENTIRE jar, said, “That hand cream was the best!  But I couldn’t get it to work into my hands, so I put it on at night and just wore gloves to bed.”  She showed off her hands, smooth and pristine.  “Where did you get it?”  The secret came out at last and we all howled.  I still get a kick out of telling that story.

This Christmas will be just as jolly, maybe even more so.  The granddaughter is a newly-minted teenager, and she wants to bake with me.  Not only that, she want to learn how to make my German Oma’s stollen.  My dad and mom spent endless hours working on translating and testing the German recipe before it met my dad’s high standards.  My mom, in turn, taught me how to make it.  Both our son and our daughter learned how to make it from me.  And now, as requested, mind you, I can pass it on to the next generation, along with a few tricks discovered along the way.  As in, don’t try to do a full recipe in one mixing bowl; split the ingredients in half.  My Oma certainly mixed it all up with her hands, not having a mixer.  We don’t have to do that, thank heavens, as the dough is thick and heavy.  Remember, the rum is for the stollen, not for drinking!  Buy candied citrus early, because it sells out quickly, although that’s eased over the last few years.  When my dad was a kid, they got one orange apiece in their stockings.  My relatives lived through two world wars, and that meant very few luxuries, like oranges.  If that recipe goes back even further, and I’m sure it does, that probably meant that citrus, nuts, raisins only showed up at Christmas.  It always does us good to remember the past.  Not just the struggles, but also the small delights we now take for granted.

I know it’s still early, but I already am dreaming of not only stollen, but German pound cake for breakfast, cut-out sugar cookies built into a tree, maybe some of my mom’s fudge, my mom-in-law’s bachelor buttons (which always go flatter than hers, sigh), Hirschhorn kuchen strewn with coarse sugar…   The list could go on and on.  Food is a ready excuse to get together and share hospitality and warmth.  We’re at an age where those are far more important than gifts.  As the old saying goes, the gift of your presence is the only present we need.

May you and yours share the memories of the past–the laughter, the tastes, the smells, the sights of those gone before us–even as you build memories for the future.

Cold for Hot, Hot for Cold

As I started writing this, the morning weather was, as one radio announcer used to say, “quiet and introspective.”  Read “gray and cloudy”.  But I really prefer his take on it.  Anyway, the temperatures were cool, and it felt like rain.  Rain, and perhaps soup.  What? you say.  Yes, soup.  In my life, weather affects not only what I wear, but what I want to eat, and what I want to cook.  So, those quiet cool days make me think of soup.  Maybe a light vegetable soup.  Or frittata, a lightweight egg dish with red, green, and orange peppers diced, shredded cheese of some sort, and even thin slices of fresh tomato.  This goes over well on days like that too.

Which leads me to weather changes.  Now, the weather has cleared, the sun came out, and the temperatures rose. Unfortunately, so did the humidity!  Hot days are one thing, but hot days with humidity are a completely different thing.  Those high-humidity days, where I feel like I’ve migrated to a Florida summer, means I don’t feel like either cooking or eating.  My body still complains that it’s hungry though, so I throw in stuff that’s quick.  A smoothie with yogurt and blueberries goes a long way, and I don’t have to cook it!  Even a glass of raspberry lemonade‒with real raspberries­–will do the trick.  Ice water with cucumber slices?  Sure.  Orange slices are even better.  And you can strip off the orange’s meat with your teeth.  Best not to do this when out with friends.  But at home?  Anything goes!  You know what?  At my age, anything goes anyway!

Just plain hot weather, without the high humidity, finds me foraging in the refrigerator for stuff that will create a salad.  Romaine and fresh spinach provide a nice cool base.  Then throw on everything you find: radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini strips, bacon, tuna, cheese, sunflower seeds, mushrooms…Shall I go on?  No?  Well, yes, we all have our special toppings.  Same with salad dressings.  I love Marie’s Asiago and Peppercorn, but my husband loves…nothing.  No dressing at all.  That tastes good too.  Whatever suits your fancy.  How about tomato slices sprinkled with shredded mozzarella and fresh basil?  A little salt and pepper.  Refreshing!  A whole meal, if you fill up a dinner plate.

Even though November is here, sometimes I’m still sticking with summer.  I’ll usually pivot in October, however, when the leaves are turning.  Although, my favorite apple, Ginger Gold, is available earlier, so…maybe I did cave in, at that point, and acknowledged that fall was appearing on the horizon.  

With really cold weather, I look forward to chili, hot apple cider, slow-cooked beef stew, or goulash and such.  Cold weather food should be hot!  I’ve gotten past the spicy phase of hot, but I’ll never give up those winter foods.  Lasagna and garlic bread taste so much better when it’s cold outside.  How about fresh bread?  Granted, that’s great anytime, but when the house is closed up, the fragrance of baking bread is so enticing.  Heavy peasant, or whole wheat, or pepperoni bread, they’re all welcome in my kitchen.  They go so well with pork roasts cooked in the crock pot with onion slices and carrots and potatoes.  Oh, yum!  Plus, there are always leftovers to make pulled pork sandwiches.

Even simple foods taste better in the cold weather.  One of the favorites?  Tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches.  Toss a couple of cubes of sharp cheddar into the soup and voila! pot o’ gold!  Top the sandwich with a handful of shredded cheddar and run it under the broiler just long enough to melt that golden layer.  Mmm-mmm!

Soon, the meteorologists will be warning that there’s a huge snowstorm coming, with high winds and dropping temperatures.  What to fix for dinner then?  Oodles of choices.  So, bundle up, light the fireplace or a few candles, and warm your insides and outsides.  Food warms the tummy, but it warms the heart and the soul as well.  Bon appetit!

What Goes Around

I was sewing with my mother years ago, when she stopped me cold with a sharp question.  I had just cut out…something…and opened the scissors slightly to run my fingers along the blade (safely!) to wipe off the lint left from the fabric.  I nearly cut myself when she commanded, “Where did you learn how to do that?”  It took me a moment to figure out she was referring to me wiping the blades.  “Um…I don’t know.  You, maybe?”  She shook her head.  “No, but my mother used to do that all the time.”  Unwitting continuity.  I never knew my grandmother, but somewhere, buried in my genes, was that simple gesture.  Continuity with the past.  I wonder how many other ancestors made that little move without thinking?  It got me thinking, that’s for sure!

Watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II recently, I was struck how the pageantry and rituals are the same as those of decades, or even centuries, ago.  Sure, some new things get added in, as individuals choose to introduce new steps, new styles, new technology into the old patterns.  The red coats trimmed in gold, the bearskin hats, the gun carriage.  Well, all right, that last one was brought in by Queen Victoria.  But some people think she also brought in the use of black clothing for funerals.  Not so!  That was the Romans.  And it still persists today for many.  Personally, I want red and purple and lime green at my funeral.  Party colors.  Break the tradition, as it were.

Many things showing continuity are so obvious, and so often commented on, that we hardly pay much attention.  Red hair that runs through the generations.  The artistic abilities that show up like a thread of silver through children, grandchildren, even cousins.  Eye color, freckles, an extra long big toe, hairy ears…the list could go on and on.

But some things are like little tricksters that pop up and make us take notice.  For a long while, I looked like my dad.  Same hazel eyes that belonged to him and his siblings and parents, same brunette hair, same complexion.  However, a cousin meeting me after a goodly span of years remarked, “Wow!  You look just like your mother!”  I had to check out the nearest mirror!  Sure enough, there was my mother’s white hair, the shape of my mother’s face, the spray of faint freckles.  The same hazel eyes were still there, but much less prominent than my dad’s were.  Good Lord, I’ve turned into my mother!  (And that’s not a bad thing, really.)

The weather, of course, provides us with continuity, though it may not exactly be comforting for some to see the warmth turn brisk and the sun skim lower on the horizon.  For me, one of the pleasant surprises is the appearance of Mount Michigan to the east of Milwaukee.  Now, we don’t really have mountains in southeastern Wisconsin, nor does the part of Michigan directly across the Great Lake have mountains.  However, on those early mornings, when the nights have been cold, but the sun is coming up, look east, and suddenly, white mountains!  Lake Michigan is offering up great billowing clouds of water evaporating into the morning air.  I swear it looks like Colorado’s snow-covered peaks.  It happens every fall, but I wonder how many people cruising east along the freeways on the way to work even notice our “mountain range.”  Like Brigadoon, it appears only on certain days, and is likely to be gone like a will-o-wisp.

Like the woman who sliced off the top of the Easter ham before baking it, sometimes we don’t even catch the craziness.  She did it because her grandmother did the same.  One Easter, a great-granddaughter asks, “Why do you do that?” and gets the usual answer: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Then granny speaks up and announces, “I cut off the top because otherwise it wouldn’t fit in my pan in the oven.”  Yikes!  How funny!

Continuity can provide us with a handle to the past, a stable link with something, or someone, that came before.  But sometimes the meaning behind things can be lost.  Why ring bells from the church steeples?  People have clocks and watches now, and don’t need that kind of a reminder.  Why send snail mail cards when many people have email and phones?  Because they give us a sense of connection with the larger world outside of ourselves.  So, keep an eye out for those annual meteor showers, mark the birthdays on the calendar, listen for the bells.

In short, celebrate the continuing threads that tie us all together!

Visiting Local

Why is it that we don’t visit the sites that are almost in our own backyard?  I wonder how many Parisians have not made the time to tour Versailles?  Have lots of Berliners walked through the Brandenburg Gate?  How many New Yorkers have never been out to the Statue of Liberty?  Have people in Los Angeles gone up the hill to enjoy the view from the Griffith Observatory?  Do San Antonians know how to find their way to the Alamo?

I’m just as guilty as the next person, to be honest.  But when we visit others, we discover it’s not an unusual phenomenon to wait until someone comes from a distance to show them around–and get the benefit of seeing something for the first time themselves.  That’s how we got to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, where we walked across the river, barefoot.  Flowing out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, it was a mere stream, probably 8 to 10 feet across, and only shin-deep.  Without a visit to friends close to the lake, we probably would not have traveled the nine hours to get there.  A rare treat.

So, when a friend came recently for a week’s visit, we took special care to show her some of the attractions close by.  Yes, we could have done Chicago, or even Milwaukee, but she’s seen those places pretty thoroughly already.  When I really put my mind to it, I discovered plenty of interesting places within an hour or so of home.  I roped a local friend into exploring a few with me beforehand.  She frequently says to me, “So, when’s the next Adventure?”  Always a willing companion, when my spouse is busy or prefers other activities.

We did Olbrich Gardens ( in Madison, a gem of 7 acres maintained by a horde of volunteers and gardeners.  Very walkable, plus, a tram to give a comfortable overview.  Milton House, in Milton, was a confirmed stop on the Underground Railroad, and we got to walk through the tunnel (excavated taller so we didn’t have to crawl), and tour the hotel above it.  The art show and the 4-H deep fried cheese curds outside were an added bonus!  We traipsed around Old World Wisconsin in Eagle (, a collection of ethnic farmsteads and tiny villages collected and moved to a lovely locale.  It even boasted a female blacksmith while we were there.  Another tram made getting around easy.

I found out that California, which considers itself heavy on the dairy industry, can’t hold a candle to us, because we have cheese curds–both fresh & squeaky, and deep-fried–and they don’t.  But the real jewel in our crown, according to our guest, is Culver’s.  She perused the month’s offerings and found, for the week she was here, three–yes, count ‘em–three frozen custards to try!  In addition to those, we went for lunch, to make sure she could try the Butterburgers.  Pronounced delish!  Also, we have yellow beans, which she’d not had.  Well, okay, she is from Los Angeles…which I really don’t consider California at all.  It’s an entity unto itself.

Though we didn’t get to cruise on Geneva Lake while she was here, four of us went down recently and rode the mail boat (  A “jumper” leaps to the dock as the mailboat slows, not stops, runs to the mailbox and stuffs the plastic-wrapped mail in, dashes back in time to catch the aft of the boat in a grand vault.  Only, she didn’t.  Catch the boat, that is.  She slipped on the dock, and sailed gracefully into the drink!  We circled back and picked her up, her feeling a bit chagrined.  We gave her an ovation anyway.  The best delivery, however, found a golden retriever waiting at the end of the dock.  The jumper gave the rolled mail to him and he trotted back up to the lawn, tail wagging madly, where his owner waited.  The last stop found us meeting…Santa!  Shhh!  He doesn’t want people knowing he reverts to shorts and spends the summer in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  We promised not to tell anyone…so, please don’t pass this on.  😊

The more I look for places to explore, the more I find.  If we don’t get visitors for a while, I guess I’ll just have to grab my local friend and ask, “Are you ready for another Adventure?”

You go ahead too.  No matter where you live, get to those places you’ve told yourself you’d visit…someday.  You don’t have to wait until someone visits from out of town!

I’m Goin’ Down

I think I’m bound for hell.  No, really.  For example, I get perverse pleasure when I meet at a red light the person who zoomed past me just a mile back.  What did it get them?  A longer wait at the stoplight.  That’s when I feel perverse pleasure in seeing that their impatience didn’t pay off, while I, who was sticking to…well, all right, sticking closer to…the speed limit, reached the same intersection just in time to see the light go green.  I hardly had to take my foot off the accelerator.

That kind of perverse pleasure–what the Germans call schadenfreude, guilty pleasure–is probably going to land me in hell.  Well, okay schadenfreude isn’t quite the same, is it?  Guilty pleasure is getting pleasure out of seeing someone else’s pain.  And then feeling guilty for being so happy at someone else’s predicament, and yet feeling happy about being right.  Now, come on, admit it–you’ve been in the same situation, haven’t you?  Probably in that car on the other side of the crazy driver who passed both of us up a while back.

Admittedly, it’s not like I take pleasure in another’s real trauma.  I know there are crazies out there that do, but that far I don’t go.  So…maybe I won’t end up in hell.  Maybe just Purgatory.  Is there still a purgatory?  If there is, I hope God doesn’t feel guilty pleasure at having me sitting there thinking about what I’ve done, much like children banished to their rooms.  “You go right in there and think about what you said/did/thought about doing/will do….”  An exercise in futility, perhaps.  One of the perverse pleasures is…the guilty pleasure you get out of it.

Some things are rife with schadenfreude.  Election results often engender it, don’t they.  Even simple things, like seeing a grandchild’s chief rival come in second at a track meet, especially if said grandchild comes in first.  Every time we warn someone of an impending foolish or questionable choice, and it doesn’t work out, don’t you say, even if only to yourself, “See?  Told ya it wouldn’t work.”  Bite your tongue!  No, not now; before they try whatever they’re attempting.  Besides, sometimes things actually do work out the way they planned, not the way you perceived.

I think my one saving grace may be that I do try to remember that somewhere out there, someone is watching me zoom past them on the road, or try something that’s been practically proven to be foolish or impossible.  Luckily, I do avoid the stuff that’s dangerous.  Anyway.  Maybe because someone else is experiencing schadenfreude over my actions, I can avoid being sent to hell.  Or maybe, at least I won’t be the only one down there.  Misery loves company.  I’ll bet perverse pleasures do too.

Maybe I can reform.  So, if you see me wave you on into a parking place where we were both headed, don’t feel perverse pleasure at having beaten me out.  Just smile and remember that I’m trying to avoid the “perverse” part of the pleasure.

Door County Delights

You leave town for a few days, and the winter squash sends out reconnaissance squads to see what is the best route of escape, the garden path, or the sneaky run alongside the tomato plant.  Then, the day you get home from Door County, the power goes out for a couple hours.  Welcome home!  But that’s not what this is all about.

What this is really about is chillin’ on vacation.  For those of you who don’t know, Wisconsin is like a mitten, and the thumb is Door County.  The waters of Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other, with cherry orchards and hiking paths, and artists, and… Well, it’s just plain ol’ down-home small town delightful.

Begin the morning with a leisurely stroll to the little coffee shop down by the marina in Fish Creek.  Yes, the towns even have delightful names:  Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, Gill’s Rock, Bailey’s Harbor.  We spent an early hour or two watching people walk their dogs (many, many dogs!), or come down the gangplanks of yachts bigger than our house, or maneuver a mega-truck in tight quarters to off-load boats so they could enjoy getting sunburned out on the water.  It was a good place to discover that, yes, there were going to be fireworks, generously paid for by a group of summer residents.  Or no, the merchant sitting at the next table wouldn’t be spending the winter up here this year.  Responding to a conversation at the next outdoor table wasn’t considered tacky either.

Some enterprising soul ran what appeared to be a water taxi service with his jet ski.  Pulling a dinghy behind, he brought people in to the dock from their sailboats moored out in the bay, then headed back out for another load.  Coming in a close second was observing a golden retriever, tricked out in a life jacket, getting ready to go aboard a little Zodiac boat.  He padded back and forth, aware of his owner packing in a bag cooler, oars, sundry other items.  Finally, nose down, he seemed to be ready.  “Seemed” being the key word there.  Said owner ended up gently pulling the dog into the boat.  Said dog wasn’t too sure about the whole operation.  Though, when they actually set off, the dog seemed perfectly happy to stick his nose out starboard while his tail wafted off portside.

Wisconsin is well known–and deservedly so–for frozen custard.  One of the delights of the Midwest, the stuff is creamy and delish!  We frequented Not Licked Yet, one of our favorite spots for performing quality control on waffle cones piled high with Butter Pecan, or Mint Chocolate Chip, or just plain Vanilla or Chocolate.  Note the capital letters.  This is not your grandma’s ice cream.  This is premier stuff.  Right across the street is Wild Tomato with their wood-fired pizza oven.  Dessert first, then dinner?  Or the other way around?  One of the many tough decisions up in Door County.

This was the weekend of the Fourth of July, so fireworks were de rigeur.  But so was the time-honored Egg Harbor parade.  Anybody could join, so we expected a rather ragged parade.  But this was top-notch small town stuff, with more than a sprinkle of creativity and candy.  Dancing chimneys singing out, “Got a dirty chimney?  Who ya gonna call?  Tim’s Chimneys!” to the tune of the Ghostbusters’ theme.  Grocery cart fancy maneuvers from the local Market employees, during which they gleefully plotched each other with water balloons and flung buckets of water everywhere.  A float with a couple reclining on a bed with the banner: “Make your own fireworks at Egg Harbor Lodge.”  I’ll leave that one alone…  The University of Wisconsin marching band–well, a small contingent of them, anyway–playing the fight song with a lot of arm-pumping to go along.  Many many other units, some groups, some singletons.  Last came a group of horseback riders with lassos.  Gaggles of kids, and grownups too, formed tight little pods out on the street, and the rider wound up and dropped a perfect loop right over the entire bunch.  Pretty impressive!  (Good thing they were last.  The following truck carried a shovel and…well, you get the idea.)  Rain was predicted, and, sure enough, after a “droplet warning” at the end of the festivities, giving plenty of time to get to the car and halfway back to Fish Creek, the skies opened and gifted us with much needed rain.  For us, it was Mother Nature’s car wash as well.

Everywhere we went, empty parking places were right there and waiting for us, even when we made a wrong turn (fortuitous that!).  The people were Midwest friendly, the hiking trails were bug-free, the weather picture-perfect.  Even the smoked fish shop was still there.  What more could we ask?

All good things must come to an end, I suppose.  As Shakespeare put it in I Henry IV, “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.”  Clearly, Door County went into mourning the morning we left.  We awoke to fog on the water and an overcast sky, which didn’t lift until we were well down the line.

We’ll be back.

(Check out the Photos section for lots more visual fun!)