You Can Get Anything You Want . . .

. . . at Alice’s Restaurant. The original restaurant under Alice’s name is long since gone, but the song that made Arlo Guthrie famous in the mid-1960’s is still a satisfying entree. All 18 1/2 minutes of it. It’s actually not a song but a funny, rambling monologue that’s clever satire and wry war protest laced with an irresistible chorus that will lodge itself in the back of your mind and stay there for days.

And it’s a true story. Or at least, as Hollywood might put it, based on true events. “Alice’s Restaurant” starts with Thanksgiving dinner at Alice’s home in a remodeled church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, wanders off to an escapade of illegal garbage dumping, meanders through a court hearing with “8 x 10 color glossy photographs” of the evidence and a judge who is blind, and ends up with a draft physical where Arlo, with his conviction for littering, is relegated to the “Group W bench” with the other undesirables rejected for military service because of their criminal records.

A brief digression: Until recently the treasurer’s office was on the second floor of our county’s elegant old courthouse building. You could walk up the sweeping, curved marble staircase on either the right or the left side—not without a passing thought of Scarlett O’Hara in a ball gown—to get to the open hallway in front of the office. Opposite the service windows were two long wooden benches like church pews where you could sit while waiting in line to get your license plates or pay your property taxes. As the person at the end of the bench was called up to one of the windows, everyone in line would slide to the right. The benches had to be the most thoroughly polished pieces of furniture in Pennington County.

Once, when it was my turn at the window, I told the clerk I always thought of the waiting line as the “Group W bench.” He was a man about my age; I didn’t have to explain the reference.

Though I wore my hair long and straight and appliqued more than one heart-shaped patch onto more than one pair of bellbottoms, I was never a hippie. I did not protest the Viet Nam War. The only college building I ever occupied was my dorm. I never participated in a sit-in, a love-in, or a be-in. The only mood-altering plant substances that have ever passed my lips are coffee and chocolate.

But I loved the irony and humor of “Alice’s Restaurant.” Still do, actually.

So I was pleased—at first—to see a news item this week announcing a new tour by Arlo Guthrie. He looked good in the accompanying photo, quite familiar in a cowboy hat with his curly hair flowing past his shoulders. It was a bit disturbing to note that the hair was white. The real distress came, however, when I read the full article. This tour is to celebrate the anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

The 50th anniversary.

Apparently, you can still get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. You just have to order it off the senior menu.

Categories: Remembering When | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Jumping Jack

There I was, minding my own business, taking an innocent walk down the lane that leads to my parents’ farmhouse. Suddenly this gigantic critter erupted from the grass practically under my feet. While I stood there gasping, waiting for my heart rate to subside, it dashed off to what it apparently considered a safe distance. There it stopped and stood up on its hind legs to reconnoiter, its eyes wide, nose twitching, and ears swiveling.

Believe me, that was one impressive bunny—the biggest jack rabbit I’ve ever seen. Its winter coat was so lush and thick, it would have made Cruella De Vil forget all about Dalmatians. And standing erect, its amazing ears at attention, it looked as big as a kangaroo. (Okay, okay, so I’ve never actually seen a kangaroo. That’s still what it looked like.)

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many jack rabbits in recent years, either. Maybe they’re all that big, and I just didn’t remember because it’s been so long. The rabbit population seems to follow cycles of abundance, over-abundance, disease and die-off, scarcity, and resurgence. Since I haven’t lived on the prairie for a long time, I’ve probably missed a few cycles.

This week, however, I discovered what may be another reason why jack rabbits seem a little scarce. They’re being abducted and genetically modified into a different species. If you don’t believe me, check out this January 19 article in the Rapid City Journal. It features “the world’s foremost jackalope maker,” who provides thousands of these exotic critters to Cabela’s.

The rabbit I saw in my parents’ lane would no doubt make an impressive jackalope. I hope, instead, it enjoys a long and prosperous life as a jack rabbit. And I promise to watch out for it the next time I visit.

I wouldn’t want it to suffer the same fate as the last South Dakota jackrabbit I got close to. That time, we ran over it. On Good Friday.

I swear, it was an accident. We were driving after dark on a gravel road when the rabbit, no doubt stressed out and distracted by its seasonal duties, dashed out in front of the car. It’s a terrible feeling to realize you have just squashed the Easter Bunny.

Maybe it would have been better off as a jackalope.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

You Might Have WRSS If . . .

As character defects go, WRSS is a fairly minor one. It’s also geography-related. I assume—though I have no research to back this up—that it affects pretty much the entire populations of states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; and for Canadians it’s practically a birthright.

The full name for WRSS is Winter Related Superiority Syndrome. It is characterized by the regrettable (but understandable) tendency to feel virtuous and superior just because one happens to live in a part of the country that has severe winters.

You and I, of course, are much too stable and emotionally balanced to be affected by this trait. Or, at least, we are skilled and sneaky enough to keep it hidden. However, if you want to know whether any of your relatives or friends suffer from WRSS, here’s a diagnostic checklist:

1. Have you ever used the phrase, “Cold enough for you?” more than three times in one day? (Extra points if, when other people ask you this question, your standard answer is, “Not quite.”)

2. Do you feel a sense of pride if your home town makes national news for having the lowest temperature in the country?

3. Do you assert that shoveling snow is better exercise than yoga? (Extra points if you genuinely believe this to be true.)

4. Do you find it odd that some people don’t appreciate the beauty of words like “slush” and “thaw”?

5. Have you ever said out loud, in public, that you think insulated coveralls or long underwear are sexy?

6. Do you regard, “It took me 20 minutes to scrape off my car,” as a legitimate excuse for being late for work?

7. Have you ever practiced blowing “smoke” rings when it’s cold enough so you can see your breath?

8. Have you ever asked someone from, say, Florida, how they can stand to live in a place that doesn’t have four seasons?

9. Are you sometimes tempted to go south for the winter, but you would never actually do it because you’re afraid it would make you look like a wimp?

10. Have you ever bragged about being able to perform miracles—pointing out that, for several months of the year, it’s no big deal for you to walk on water?

And finally, here’s how to discover whether your case of WRSS is incurable: You feel acute embarrassment if you’ve made up something snarky about cold weather, only to find that the day you publish it turns out to be sunny with a high of 50 degrees.

Categories: Just For Fun | 3 Comments

Time Travel With a Beat

Bopping back and forth with the preset buttons on my car radio the other day, I switched from classical music on NPR to classic country music on an oldies station just in time to catch a song that transported me back in time.

The song was “Bop,” performed by Dan Seals, written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball. (Here’s a video if you want to hear it. Warning: put your dancing shoes on first.)

This is the song I learned to jitterbug to. Just a few notes of it take me right back to dance classes, circa 1985. Seals and his baby bopped all night long, over and over, while earnest couples practiced on a well-used hardwood floor. First the basic step (one-and, two-and, back-step) and then the spins and twirls and moves—some of which, my late husband and I discovered, are a challenge when one partner is a foot taller than the other.

Music is one of the most powerful evokers of memory that we have. I don’t know enough about the brain to know why this is so, but I know from my own experience how well it works. A song pops up randomly on the radio or TV (or even, with unsettling frequency in recent years, in an elevator), and the memories associated with it promptly unroll with full color and vivid emotion. It happens often, with a great many songs, but here are just a few examples:

“Pomp and Circumstance.” I’m sure I can’t be the only one who responds to its first stately notes with an impulse to stand up straight, make sure our mortarboards are level, and process slowly toward the stage with that step-pause, step-pause gait peculiar to graduates and bridesmaids.

When the long-time band director at my kids’ high school retired, I was disappointed that his final concert didn’t include “Hot Cross Buns.” The simple little tune would have taken every student in the band and every parent in the audience back to those first days of clarinet or flute or oboe lessons. We’d have been hearing it in our minds as it sounded then, played with the hesitant, excruciating exactness of beginners just trying to figure out their instruments. Maybe the band director didn’t want to bring back that much emotion. Or maybe, after 40-some years, he simply couldn’t stand to hear it one more time.

And when I hear “The Marines’ Hymn,” it doesn’t evoke mental images of marching soldiers. Instead, it takes me back to a handful of kids in a one-room country school house, singing with gusto while one of them (me) plunks out the melody on an old upright piano. Most of us had only the vaguest idea where the “shores of Tripoli” were and probably couldn’t have told you whether Montezuma was a person or a place, but the song was in our battered old songbooks and we liked the tune.

Outside of science fiction, no one has been able yet to build a time-travel machine. At least so we think. We don’t realize that most of us already have time machines right in our own homes. They might be mp3 players, sophisticated audio systems, simple CD players, or even outdated tape players. Whatever technology they use, they all have amazing, almost magical power. With them, we can time-travel whenever we want to. All it takes is music.

Categories: Remembering When, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Calendars, Done Well

One of the pleasures of a new year is starting a fresh calendar. It’s easy to think of calendars as restrictive, as ways we schedule and limit ourselves and put our lives into boxes. I prefer to think of them as holders of opportunities, filled with promise and possibility. All those days are just waiting to be filled, not merely with appointments and anniversaries, but with people and experiences.

Calendars can serve as daily journals, not just reminders of what we need to do but as records of what we’ve done. The calendar in our kitchen when I was growing up, for example, had notes like “.65 in. rain” and tracked the births of calves with the numbers of their mothers’ ear tags.

Calendars can be educational—and I don’t mean “Miss July,” either. The first book my son ever read, at age two or three, was a calendar. He went through it page by page, reading all the numbers out loud to his father, who patiently listened through all 12 months.

A calendar, done well, is a perfect combination of utility and beauty. I’m particular about the meaning of “done well.” Wall calendars, for example, need not only great pictures, but also daily squares with both readable numbers and room to write stuff. And I prefer a certain brand and style of spiral-bound planner for my desk, where Monday is always on the left-hand page so I never confuse it with Tuesday and risk missing something exciting like a dental appointment.

I know a paper planner isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to keep my daily to-do list and record my billable hours. If I did it electronically, the computer could alert me to appointments with alarms and pop-up notices and would probably even do the math for me. But I don’t want to give up the emotional and tactile satisfaction of taking my pen and crossing something off my list when I’ve finished it. Sometimes I even write items on the to-do list after I’ve done them, just for the pleasure of crossing them off.

This is a great year for wall calendars; we have three that are definitely done well. They offer an assortment of wonderful photos, all of which allow us to see our local area in new ways. The dilemma now is deciding which one to hang where.

One will go in my office to help me remember an ever-increasing database of birthdays. I finally got smart enough to write in birth years as well as names, since I’m reasonably good at tracking the dates but fuzzy about ages.

One will hang in the kitchen to keep track of scheduled events like concerts and plays. (January 16, for example: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. Another chance to see my son-in-law on stage in a dress.)

And the third, with duplicate entries for at least the most significant dates, will go downstairs in my partner’s office. After all, for a happy relationship it’s a good idea to be sure you’re both on the same page. Or at least in the same month.

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

I Could Quit Any Time

They’re everywhere this time of year. Christmas cookies. Pie. Hot cocoa. Gift boxes of chocolates. Stockings full of sweets.

And one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight.

Irony? Coincidence? Or cause and effect? Regardless, it’s a good thing we have that week between Christmas and New Year’s to get everything eaten.

Some of us (naming no names, but you know who I am) don’t do any holiday baking. We have two options: to rely on the kindness of more culinarily ambitious friends and family members, or to buy our own goodies.

Theoretically, I suppose, there is a third choice—to go without—but that’s merely an absurd technicality.

Fortunately, when one has a reputation as a chocolate addict, friends and family can generally be counted on for gifts of one’s substance of choice. Being seen as a chocoholic is especially useful this time of year.

However, in my case, that reputation is totally undeserved.

Oh, I love chocolate. Dark chocolate, especially. I eat some almost every day. I make sure to keep a stash of the stuff. But I am not an addict.

Here’s my supporting evidence:

• This Christmas, freely and with a glad heart, I sent a bag of dark chocolate M&M’s to a family member even though I originally bought it for myself. (Yes, I bought myself another bag the next day; why would you ask?)

• A few years ago I spent several weeks in a foreign country at a geology field camp. I hardly had any chocolate the whole time, and I didn’t suffer a single pang of withdrawal. In fact, I barely noticed. By now I’ve practically forgotten all about it.

• Not all chocolate is created equal; I have standards. A Tootsie Roll (it’s a texture thing) could stay uneaten on my kitchen counter for years. S’mores are way too sweet and gooey. Chocolate ice cream is too much chocolate; vanilla with chocolate syrup is much better. Chocolate Nutella is simply disgusting. And there are some places chocolate simply does not belong, such as pecan pie, animal crackers, and baklava.

• I don’t snitch other people’s chocolate. Your stash is perfectly safe with me.

• Nor do I eat chocolate chips that are in the cupboard for the purpose of making chocolate chip cookies. Of course, I did figure out several years ago that, if one buys chocolate chips for the express purpose of eating them, that’s perfectly acceptable.

• Nearly every day, after lunch, I eat a small amount of chocolate. Then I’m done. No going back for more, no emptying the bag, no sneaking just one more piece. Enough is enough. Really.

When you look objectively at the evidence, it’s obvious. I am not an addict. I could quit eating chocolate any time I wanted to.

I’ve just never seen any reason to want to.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Tradition

“What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?”

Someone asked me that question this week, and it stopped me cold. I didn’t know what to say. In spite of thriving on routine—the phrase “rut person” may even come to mind—I don’t fill my life with a lot of rituals, holiday or otherwise. Besides, there has been a lot of upheaval over the years, and holiday traditions have shifted and evolved along with everything else.

Still, one thing has remained constant enough to be labeled “tradition.” That one thing is family. Get-togethers haven’t always been on the same date. They haven’t even always been with the same people. But no matter which members of which part of the clan get together, Christmas has always been about family.

Sometimes it’s been fun. Taking the kids to cut Christmas trees in the Black Hills National Forest. Watching little ones open gifts, then take great delight in playing with the boxes. Creating surprises that worked just the way they were supposed to.

Sometimes it’s been funny. One long-ago Christmas, a dozen or so of us were gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house on Christmas Eve. After we had eaten dinner, done dishes, and opened gifts, my aunt suddenly started to laugh. “Look at the tree!” she said.

There it sat, among the crumpled gift wrap and torn-open boxes, as bare as the Emperor without his clothes. In the midst of a busy day, she had forgotten to decorate it. And nobody noticed. (Or at least, anybody who did was too polite to say anything.)

Sometimes it’s been inadvertently adventurous. The year that my son and daughter were seven and one, we were traveling to my parents’ house on a bitterly cold December 23. The wind came up, and the beautiful snow covering the ground turned into a dangerous blizzard. We were smart enough to stop at a small town before the drifts got too deep, and we were lucky enough to get the last available motel room.

The next morning, over breakfast at the town’s single cafe, we met a man who invited us to spend the day at his house until the roads were cleared. He and his wife made us welcome, fed us lunch, and then left us in their house while they went off to their family’s Christmas Eve gathering. I remember sitting in their peaceful living room, rocking my daughter to sleep, feeling deeply blessed by the kindness and trust of these people whose Christmas spirit reached out to take in stranded strangers. In all the years since, I’ve never driven past that small town without thinking of them. And yes, the wind went down, the snowplows went by, and we did get home for Christmas.

Over the years, the dates and locations and faces have changed. We’ve had people in the hospital, people break bones at the family celebration (duct tape in the hands of a good veterinarian makes a good emergency splint), people too pregnant to travel, people too far away to travel, and of course the new arrivals that keep the family growing.

But the one constant has been family. As it will be this year. We have four different celebrations planned, with four different and sometimes overlapping parts of the family. So far, no adventures appear imminent. But then, if we knew about them in advance, they wouldn’t exactly be adventures, would they?

Merry Christmas!

Categories: Family | Tags: | 4 Comments


Special offers! Coupons! Preferred Shopper Rewards!

This time of year, retailers use every marketing tool they can think of to lure shoppers into their stores and persuade them to spend more. Given the volume of sales this month generates, it must work, too.

Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I am one of the shoppers who happily takes the lure. I take advantage of coupons, discounts, and sales whenever possible, including Christmas shopping. I always hope my loved ones never have to return any gifts I buy them, because I would be embarrassed to have them discover how little I actually spent.

But one sales technique confuses me. BOGO.

I don’t know whether to call it textspeak, an acronym, or a catchphrase, but it’s an abbreviated way of saying that, if you buy one thing you can get a second one at a discount: half price, maybe, or even free.

There’s just one problem. BOGO, read literally as an acronym, just means “Buy one, get one.”

Um—isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? If I buy a blouse, say, I expect to get a blouse. I’ve paid for it, after all; I’d better walk out of the store with it in my hot little hand.

BOGO really ought to be BOGOF, for “Buy one, get one free.” Except, of course, that the second one isn’t always free.

BOGOC, maybe? For “Buy one, get one cheap?” Oh, no; that would never do. Marketing people may love to use words like “sale” and “discount” and “value” and maybe even “bargain,” but they hate to use the word “cheap.” No store wants that connotation of “this shoddy piece of junk will fall apart the first time you use it.”

BOGOFL? “Buy one, get one for less?” Accurate, perhaps, but too long and not catchy enough.

Never mind; I give up. This must be why all those clever advertising copywriters settled for BOGO.

I still reserve the right to roll my eyes when I see it. But if you happen to be behind me in the checkout line, don’t worry; I’ll be nice. At least until I get the discount on my second item.

Categories: Money Matters, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

To Swat or Not to Swat?

Supposedly, in some cultures, there is a belief that if you save someone’s life you then become responsible for that person. I did extensive research (five whole minutes with Google) and didn’t find any evidence that this is actually true.

Which makes sense, since the whole idea seems backwards. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it the other way around? The savee, after all, is the one owing a debt to the saver. Not to mention that potential rescuers might be discouraged from saving anyone’s life in the first place, given the potential long-term consequences.

But my real question at the moment is whether this tradition, if it even exists, applies to non-human species. Insects, specifically.

Every fall, when the weather gets cold, we have a mild invasion of wasps. They either migrate inside to keep from freezing to death, or they emerge—and this is not a happy thought—from wherever they have been living inside the walls.

A few weeks ago, when temperatures were falling below zero, one of these wasps took up residence in the kitchen sink. Not the smartest place to settle. For one thing, the stainless steel got so cold overnight that the wasp was too numb to move by morning. Besides, a sink is a place where water can gush forth at random intervals and unpredictable temperatures. Innocent insects are at constant risk of being plunged into a maelstrom that will take them down the drain to a watery death.

I rescued this particular wasp at least twice, plucking it out of the sink before I committed the potentially lethal act of washing dishes. After that, while it tended to stay out of the sink, it still made a nuisance of itself by crawling around on the counter or perching on the faucet. The fact that it didn’t ever sting me in a moment of ungratefulness was due solely to my being careful not to accidentally put my hand on it.

The critter was annoying. I really didn’t want it around. Still, since I had saved its life, I couldn’t bring myself to swat it or toss it outside to perish in the cold. It would have been too much like healing a convicted murderer’s life-threatening illness in order to have him healthy enough to walk to the electric chair. I just couldn’t handle the irony.

So I put up with its presence for several days, moving dishes around it and checking to make sure it wasn’t lurking in the sink before I turned on the water.

Then Monday came. And with it, the wonderful woman who cleans our house every other week. She hates wasps. Unlike me, she had no relationship with this one.

I was conveniently out of the house while she was cleaning. (Yes, as a matter of fact, I can spell “plausible deniability.”)

When I came back, the house was clean. The kitchen counter was polished. The sink was gleaming.

And the wasp, by strange coincidence, was nowhere to be seen.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: | 2 Comments

“So Rudolph and Darth Vader Walk Into . . . “

“Catalog (noun): A compilation of items you have never heard of and do not need, presented in such a way as to persuade you that you can’t live without them.”

Somebody somewhere must have been selling my address, because an assortment of catalogs have shown up in the mailbox lately. I usually toss them, but the other day two of them arrived just in time to provide reading material while I waited for an appointment.

These catalogs were not selling cheap odd junk, mind you. These, aimed at a more selective and affluent market, were selling expensive odd junk. Like washable cashmere lounging pants, battery-powered nose hair trimmers, indoor flameless marshmallow roasters, and personalized bobblehead dolls created from photographs of your loved ones. Plus a Darth Vader toaster, complete with glowing eyes and the ability to brand “Star Wars” onto each slice of toast.

While each of those had its own particular appeal, two other items caught my attention.

First, the tasteless, creepy, grandchild-terrifying Christmas decoration that no household should be without: the 15-foot tall, animated, inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (only $399.95). Not only does he have an “LED-illuminated bulbous red nose,” but “A quiet electronic motor swivels his head back and forth, implying his natural curiosity, while his pert tail and ears suggest an alertness and eagerness to entertain.” In our neighborhood, that alertness could be a good idea. The real deer who frequent our yard, meeting this outsized interloper, might just decide to test their own natural curiosity and their sharp-pointed antlers against Rudolph’s chubby inflatable legs.

The second item is more utilitarian: a “Cordless Snow Shovel” for a mere $299.99. “Just push a button, and you’re off.” It’s quiet. It has a rechargeable battery. It has zero carbon emissions. (Well, if you don’t count using electricity to recharge those batteries.)

But, wait. We already have two cordless snow shovels. They don’t even need batteries, although their operators may need periodic recharging with hot chocolate. They’re quiet, if you don’t count the occasional grunting, muttering, and whining from their users. I’m not sure about the zero carbon emissions, though; the heavy breathing that accompanies their use must put quite a lot of carbon dioxide into the air.

Oh, now I get it. That’s why we only shovel two tire-width tracks up our long driveway instead of clearing off the whole thing. We’re just trying to reduce our carbon footprint.

Regretfully, I decided not to invest in either of these items. Maybe next year.

But I did think twice about the Darth Vader toaster. One person on my Christmas list, as a little boy, sat enthralled through the first Star Wars movie and, as a teenager, did an impressive Darth Vader impersonation. He just might have loved it.

Categories: Family, Just For Fun | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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