Gross! You Really Eat That Stuff?

Given any control over the remote, I wouldn’t have chosen to watch a television show about “bizarre foods.” But stuck in a crowded waiting room, with no reading material, in a seat close to the mercifully muted TV set, I didn’t have a lot of choice.

The show featured closeups of food in the process of being caught, cleaned, or cooked—all of it artfully arranged for maximum grossness by some luckless intern food designer. The limp tentacles of octopi dangled over the rims of bowls, squishy shellfish oozed slime, and various sorts of crabs displayed their eyestalks and claws to best advantage. These shots were interspersed with closeups of attractive young women whose busy bloody fingers were gutting fish and skinning piles of songbirds the size of robins. All this culminated with closeups of the intrepid reporter tasting various completed dishes and commenting with his mouth full.

All in all, it was enough to make me vow never again to forget to charge my Kindle.

Really, though, for anyone familiar with butchering chickens or cleaning fish or pheasants, there wasn’t much about the foods on the show that was truly bizarre. Well, maybe except for the tentacles.

“Bizarre,” would be a better description of some of the things that creative cooks, with strong imaginations and even stronger stomachs, do with sausages or spaghetti or frosting for Halloween parties.

But all those things, disgusting as they might be, aren’t half as bizarre as plenty of the stuff you can buy in any grocery store. Such as items so processed that the manufacturers feel obliged to clarify on the label that it’s intended for human consumption, with descriptions like “processed imitation cheese food” or “meat product.” Or “fruit” snacks that are made primarily of sugars, starches, and filler, but that are touched by actual blueberries or strawberries somewhere on the assembly line.

Then there are the weird forced marriages of substances never meant to go together, like jalapeno bacon ice cream or chocolate pumpkin pie.

And let’s not even get into the secret home-alone comfort foods we might enjoy in private but would never eat in company. (I promise not to ask about yours, and I’m certainly not telling you mine.)

Of course, whether food seems normal or weird depends mostly on what we grew up eating. My own limited middle-of-the-country palate recoils at anything spicier than a green bell pepper and thinks “curry” is something you do to horses. One of my friends, raised in the Southwest, thinks green chili is a basic vegetable but is repulsed by rhubarb. In truth, I suppose, almost every dish that is someone’s “bizarre food” is someone else’s “just like my mama used to make.”

Note to anyone who grew up eating my cooking: please, be nice and keep your comments to yourselves.

Categories: Food and Drink | Leave a comment

Toasted Dust and Toasty Toes

There’s nothing quite like the cozy pleasure of turning on the furnace for the first time in the fall. Oh, you can postpone it for a while, even when the mornings are getting cool enough so you wake up and are tempted to pull the covers up to your neck and stay tucked in for another few minutes. You know that during this “shoulder season,” you might need to put on a jacket to go out and get the morning paper, but it’s still likely to get up to 80 degrees before lunch time.

But eventually comes that first genuinely cold morning when you know the time has come. You get out of bed, reach for your short summer bathrobe, and realize your goosebumps are telling you it’s time to scurry over to the closet and get the heavy winter robe instead. You put it on, then perch on tiptoe to minimize the contact between your bare feet and the cold floor while you rummage through the clutter in the bottom of the closet for your slippers.

Wrapped up but still shivering, you go down the hallway and nudge the thermostat up from 50 to 70. Almost immediately the furnace, which has been hibernating since the middle of May, comes to life with a soft rumble. Warm air begins flowing out of the vent in the bathroom, bringing with it that distinctive autumn aroma of toasted dust.

When you go out to the kitchen to make coffee, you linger at the counter while it brews, your toes stretching in the delicious warmth coming out of the vent below the cupboard. You curl up in your chair under an afghan, cold fingers wrapped around your first cup of steaming coffee, contemplating the cold-weather pleasures of soups and sweaters and bread baking in the oven. The house begins to surround you with comfort.

And you didn’t have to do anything but adjust the thermostat. No chopping wood, no carrying coal, no building fires. It’s practically a miracle. All you’ve had to do is wave your magic wand—er, pen—over your checkbook and pay the gas bill.

*By the way, it’s much easier to celebrate the joys of crisp fall mornings on a late-October day when the predicted high is 70 degrees.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 2 Comments

The Unlocked Room Mystery

All I meant to do was change my clothes. Really. I didn’t mean it to turn into a big drama.

First, a little background. The family was gathered at my youngest sister’s house the day before our father’s funeral. Now, any time you have a houseful of a couple of dozen people who are sad, stressed, and exhausted, there’s potential for plenty of drama. Especially when it’s right before lunch.

I took the slacks I had just pressed into the guest room, closed the door, changed my clothes, and started to leave the room. The door wouldn’t open.

At first I assumed I had simply locked it by mistake. But no matter which position the lock was in, or which way I turned the knob, or how much I jiggled and pushed and pulled on it, the door stayed shut. The knob turned in my hand, but the latch didn’t move. Apparently, something was wrong with the mechanism.

I was acutely embarrassed. Here we were, in the middle of a sorrowful family occasion, with everyone grieving, and I had to divert people’s attention from taking care of difficult and important things because I couldn’t, for God’s sake, get myself out of a room that I didn’t mean to lock myself into?

But finally I had to admit it was time to summon help. The next time I heard someone out in the hallway, I knocked on the door, got the attention of a passing niece, and explained my predicament.

And the family, in our own particular way, sprang into action. Warning: here comes the drama.

My niece went and told my sister the homeowner, “Your sister is locked in the guest room.” Her response was “Which sister?” I guess I should consider myself lucky that, when she found out which sister it was, she didn’t opt to just leave me in there.

A self-appointed committee of problem-solvers gathered outside the door. Now, you’d expect these first-line rescuers to work together in a helpful, courteous, and cheerful manner—after all, one was an Eagle Scout and three were civil engineers.

But other family members chimed in, as well, helpfully and just a trifle too cheerfully. Here is a sample of their advice and support:

• “Should we make some pancakes to slide under the door?”
• “It’s a good thing somebody brought that thin-sliced ham; it would fit under the door.”
• “Don’t panic in there: heavy breathing will just use up the oxygen.”
• “We could get one of those chocolate brownies under the door if somebody stepped on it first to mash it flat.”

While the problem-solvers pondered outside the door, I explored inside the room. Where I discovered:

• If this turned into a long siege, quilting magazines were the only available reading material. However, there were board games in the closet.
• The piece of plastic that someone slipped under the door didn’t work to budge the latch. Too bad it wasn’t a credit card; while I was waiting for rescue, I could have done some online shopping. Oh, but I didn’t have my phone. Never mind.
• Despite all the mysteries and thrillers I’ve read, I don’t know how to pick a lock with a nail file, a bobby pin, or a knitting needle.

After due pondering, the rescue committee came up with a solution. My brother-in-law slid a screwdriver under the door and told me to take off the doorknob.

It takes a long time to remove a couple of two-inch screws which are threaded along their entire length, too stiff to turn with one’s fingers, and close enough to the doorknob that you have to reposition the screwdriver every half-turn. Especially when there’s way too much laughing going on outside the door, interspersed with moments of silence when you begin to wonder if everyone has forgotten about you and gone off to have lunch.

Which, of course, they didn’t. Once I got the screws out and took the doorknob off on my side, they were right there to remove the lockset on the outside.

The door still wouldn’t open. One of the engineers figured out the problem: a broken or jammed thingamabob inside the mechanism that kept the latch from moving. He popped loose the offending part, the latch shifted, the door opened, and I was free. Just in time for lunch.

Of course, the meal was garnished with more good-natured smart remarks. But as one of my sisters said, “We needed that laughter.” It certainly was better than yelling, blaming, and hysterics. Some families may do drama with more, well, drama—but this method works for us.

I do think, though, that somebody could have slipped me a squashed chocolate brownie.

Categories: Family | 2 Comments

King Midas and P. T. Barnum Walk Into a Museum . . .

I so hoped this was a hoax. It sounds like a hoax; it looks like a hoax; for all I know, it even smells like a hoax. Apparently, though, it isn’t one. There really is a new art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum which is a toilet: functional, flushable, and open to the public (no, not that kind of open; it’s in a private bathroom). Oh, and it’s made entirely of gold.

This is not merely plumbing, ladies and gentlemen; this is Art.

According to the Guggenheim’s website, the installation provides “an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” True enough, I suppose. Visitors to art museums aren’t usually allowed to even touch the exhibits, much less encouraged to drop their drawers and plop themselves down on top of one.

This particular bit of plumbing-dressed-as-art was created by an Italian artist named Maurizio Cattelan. Its title, “America,” seems a bit rude to me, though the Guggenheim explains that the exhibit “evokes the American dream of opportunity for all.”

The gold was provided by an anonymous donor, whose taste may be debatable but whose wealth must not be. Though the actual cost of the raw material has not been made public, one estimate cited in Fortune magazine put it in a range of around 1.4 million to 2.5 million dollars. I suppose it would be crass to point out the many other ways that this amount of money might more effectively evoke “the American dream of opportunity for all.” Founding a company or two to create jobs, say, or funding college scholarships, or supporting addiction treatment programs. But, of course, nothing so mundane can compare to the uplifting and sublime opportunity to have an “intimate, private experience with a work of art.”

A guard (now, there’s a dream job for you) is stationed outside the door of the bathroom. Since there isn’t much danger of someone pulling up a heavy gold toilet and running off with it, maybe the guard is there mostly to make sure no one jumps the line of waiting users or settles down in the bathroom with a book. But what if someone, safely inside with the door locked, takes out a pocket knife or a fingernail file and starts scraping bits of gold from the inside of the rim? Is the guard supposed to check it after every use? And what about flash photography? Are selfies allowed?

Or maybe, like most museum guards, this one’s primary function is to respond to the most common question visitors ask: “Where is the bathroom?” Which might be necessary, since apparently the door to the restroom art is simply and tastefully labeled with only the name of the exhibit.

P. T. Barnum might have done something a bit more creative. To keep visitors to his American Museum from lingering too long, he put up signs saying, “This Way to the Egress.” People who didn’t know “egress” was just another word for “exit” would follow the signs in search of this strange creature, only to find themselves outside the door. Maybe, when the first flush of interest has worn off and people are no longer willing to wait in line for a couple of hours to see a gold toilet, the Guggenheim can renew the public’s interest with signs like “This Way to the Excretorium” or “See the Golden Throne.”

Or maybe—one can always hope—this particular bit of Art will not turn out to be a classic masterpiece. Maybe the Guggenheim will chose not to make it a permanent exhibit. After all, even King Midas found that turning everyday objects into solid gold wasn’t quite the good idea he thought it would be.

In the meantime, wherever he is, P. T. Barnum is probably chuckling. Even he probably couldn’t say just who is the butt of this particular joke. But as he well knew, the best possible source of solid gold is a gullible public looking for novelty.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: | 2 Comments

Just Wondering . . .

Just in case you need some things to wonder about the next time you are out for a walk, stuck in traffic, or having trouble sleeping:

Why are they called “buildings” instead of “builts”?

Why do we have cool names like Triton and Europa and Ganymede for all the other planets’ moons, but ours is just “the moon”?

Why don’t school buses have seat belts?

Why is corn served as a vegetable instead of a grain?

Why does your hair always look its best on days when you are either in some remote solitary corner at work, or you have no plans to even leave the house?

Why do a “fat chance” and a “slim chance” mean the same thing?

Why are people who ride bicycles called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers”? And should the increasing numbers of the latter who are switching to three-wheelers be called “trikers” or “tricylists”?

Why do the shoes that seem to fit perfectly in the shoe store hurt your feet when you put them on at home? Do they shrink in the car?

I agree with Jonathan Swift’s assertion that, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” But who was the first brave soul who not only ate rhubarb in its natural state (as in, not sweetened and in a pie), but proclaimed it good and fed it to her children?

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Time to Put the Top Down

It’s a damp, chilly day here in the Black Hills, a gentle reminder that, even though tomorrow is supposed to be in the 80s, fall will be here any minute now. Time to hurry up and finish those summer projects like staining the deck and spraying the thistles. Time to consider closing the windows, and think about putting another blanket on the bed, and wonder if it’s too early to stash your sandals in the back of the closet.

Time, if you happen to own one, to put the top up on your convertible.

Of course, if I ever owned a convertible, I would leave the top up all the time. I’ve never seen the advantages of driving down the highway with the sun blazing down on the top of your head (which is bare because the wind blew your fashionable sun hat away several miles back), and the wind tangling your hair into snarls and whipping tears out of your eyes, not to mention the occasional contact lens.

However, since I try to be a nonjudgmental and open-minded person, at least when people are watching, I thought it only fair to focus on some of the advantages of driving a convertible. Such as:

Convertible owners contribute more to the local economy. Oh, not just through the money spent directly on the car, but in collateral ways. Like replacing contact lenses more frequently than drivers of conventional cars. Seeing the dermatologist more often. Buying more moisturizer, sunscreen, and eye makeup. Replacing hats and scarves regularly. More frequent visits to the hair salon. Even if you decide the best solution to the problem of “convertible hair” is to keep it short—say, about one inch long all over—you’re going to need a trim every couple of weeks.

If convertible owners lock their keys inside the car, they can just climb over the door.

Convertible owners don’t need protein supplements, thanks to all those bugs they inadvertently swallow.

A convertible is a mobile karaoke station. Want to share your musical talent with the world? No problem. If you’re singing along to the radio as you drive, everyone else at the stop signs will hear you loud and clear.

If you take a convertible through the self-serve car wash, and it’s a beautiful day, and you just happen to be thinking of more important things than remembering to put the top up—you can wash the inside of the car, your hair, your new leather sandals, the important papers in the glove compartment, and your emergency stash of chocolate all at the same time.

Of course, all these advantages pale beside the most important reason for wanting a convertible: the coolness factor. When you’re in a car that cool, people notice. Plus driving a convertible is great fun, or at least so I am told. Especially on those perfect days when the weather is just right for driving with the top down—not too cold, too hot, too wet, or too windy.

Here in western South Dakota, times like that occur from 5:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. on summer mornings from about June 31 through mid-September. Not only will driving a convertible at that hour be a lovely experience, but the two dog walkers, five serious joggers, and three sleepy newspaper carriers who are out on the streets are sure to be impressed.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Travel | Leave a comment

A Life Well Lived “In the Middle of Nowhere”

I recently met a woman who lived not far from where I grew up in south-central South Dakota, and she asked me where my family’s farm was. When I told her, “Fifteen miles north and west of Gregory,” she said, “But that’s in the middle of nowhere!”

Well, we didn’t think so. We were only six miles from the highway, after all. To qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” surely you’d have to be at least 20 or 25 miles from the nearest pavement.

I will admit, though, that when it rained those six miles turned into a formidable obstacle of slippery, sticky gumbo. Even in later years, after the roads were graded and graveled, driving on them after a rain required a judicious amount of care and respect.

I remember one visit to my parents back when I was a single mom with two young children. It rained heavily the night before I needed to head home, and I was a little nervous about those six miles of gravel-over-gumbo between the highway and me. I loaded the kids and our stuff into my little Datsun station wagon, braced myself, and took off. We slipped and slid a few times, but made it with no real problems. After those first six miles, the rest of the 250-mile trip was a breeze.

After I got home, I made the usual “We’re home safe” phone call to my parents. My dad happened to answer the phone. I said I hadn’t had any trouble getting through the mud. He chuckled and said, “You didn’t know you had a guardian angel following you, did you?”

After I left, he had gotten into the pickup and driven a half mile behind me all the way to the highway, just in case I slid off the road and needed some help. I never even knew he was there.

My father almost never said, “I love you.” What he did instead was do “I love you.” That day, his actions said “I love you,” as clearly as if he had shouted it.

More clearly, in fact. He could have told us goodbye with big hugs and said, “I love you so much”—and then stayed comfortably in the warm house and had another cup of coffee. Instead, he put on his coveralls, went out to the pickup, and drove six miles through the mud to the highway and six miles back. He was there behind me just in case I needed him.

Ten years ago, my parents drove out to Rapid City because my father had an appointment with the cardiologist. They stayed at my house for a couple of days. Since my dad, at age 82, wasn’t comfortable driving in city traffic, I served as the driver while they were here. But the morning they were to leave, I drove my car to the clinic and they followed me. When my dad had seen the doctor, they started for home.

As I watched them pull out of the clinic parking lot onto Fifth Street and head north, I knew they shouldn’t have any trouble. All they needed to do was stay on that street all the way through town to I-90.

Still, after waiting a minute, I pulled out onto Fifth Street and headed north myself. Staying back far enough so they wouldn’t notice me, I followed them through town until I saw them turn onto the Interstate. It really wasn’t necessary, but I was there behind them just in case they needed me. It was my turn to be the guardian angel—to do “I love you.” Just the way I learned it from my father.

In the years since, as our parents have aged and needed more help, saying “I love you” has become much more common. But my sisters and I have also had plenty of opportunities to do “I love you,” especially in the past few months. Our father spent most of the month of July in the hospital. On July 23 he had a heart attack, and on July 27 he died.

In the days after his death, as we wrote his obituary and made arrangements and supported our mother, I found a great deal of comfort in two things. One was the stories and memories we shared, with plenty of laughter as well as tears. Another was realizing the great respect and love that so many friends and members of the extended family had for our father. I always knew that he was a man of integrity who could be relied on. I always knew I was proud to be his daughter. I hadn’t fully understood how much, in his own quiet way, he touched and influenced so many people. Even in a place some people might see as “the middle of nowhere,” his life made a difference.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 8 Comments

The Hit Parade

Aside from encouraging small children to risk life and limb by dashing out in front of huge tractors or nervous horses to scoop up handfuls of candy, I don’t quite see the point of parades.

In summer parades, spectators who forgot to bring sunscreen swelter on hot street corners to watch neat lines of musicians sweat in march tempo and members of civic organizations try to simultaneously smile and keep their balance on lurching floats. In winter parades, spectators who forgot to put on long underwear clutch insulated cups of hot cocoa while they shiver on cold street corners to watch riders on illuminated floats try to simultaneously keep their balance and move closer to the strings of Christmas lights in search of warmth.

Maybe I’m just jealous, since my own opportunities to participate in parades have been limited.

As a college freshman, I did ride on a float in the homecoming parade. Not as a queen candidate or any other kind of celebrity, but as one of several girls representing female students through the college’s history. Since it was October, I did appreciate being chosen to wear the 1890s dress instead of the 1920s flapper costume. I even learned a couple of things: First, a thick towel folded over a cord, which is then tied around one’s waist, makes an acceptable substitute for a bustle. Second, historical novels and movies notwithstanding, sitting down in a ladylike manner while wearing a bustle isn’t easy.

Since I played the piano instead of the flute or the tuba, I wasn’t in marching band in high school, either. This didn’t bother me, especially after seeing how miserably hot the musicians looked in their uniforms for the 4th of July parade. At least most years they were placed in line ahead of the horseback riders.

One year, however, the town of Gregory, SD, in order to schedule an acceptable carnival, held its 4th of July celebration two weeks early. The date happened to be my mother’s birthday. Of course, the family joked about the big celebration in her honor.

Maybe that’s what gave us the idea. My sisters and I borrowed our aunt’s car, enlisted her help to keep our mother from wondering too much about why we weren’t watching the parade with the family, and joined the procession. There were the marching bands, local political leaders, VFW, American Legion, businesses, civic organizations, brand-new tractors, beauty queens in convertibles, and the steam calliope. And us—four girls in a 1962 Nash Rambler station wagon with a homemade sign on each side reading “Happy Birthday, Mother.”

We got some laughs, some puzzled looks, a few shouted “Happy Birthdays,” and some disappointed looks from little kids who had hoped we would at least throw candy. Most important, though, we got pleased surprise from our mother. She hadn’t guessed the secret even though she wondered “where the girls are.”

Maybe the whole parade wasn’t for her, but our part of it was. She deserved it, too. Many years and celebrations later, it’s still the best parade I’ve never seen.

Categories: Just For Fun | Leave a comment

Swim Suit Suitability

Once every 20 years or so, there are a few things a woman just needs to do. Like make a drastic hairstyle change. Remodel the house. Toss the old couch. Change careers.

Or buy a new swimsuit.

Over the past two decades I have bought three cars and one house. I have sold three cars and two houses. I have moved twice, updated one kitchen, and replaced several significant pieces of furniture. How many swimsuits have I bought in all that time? None.

You may think this is because I am overwhelmed by the whole process of finding one. Well, yes, I am, but that isn’t the reason. Really, it takes me years to wear out a suit. I rarely go to a lake. I live a thousand miles from the nearest oceans. I haven’t dipped a toe into a public pool for years. I don’t do any tanning. Not only did I find it too boring when I was a teenager, but I’ve lost any taste I might have had for it since the dermatologist starting freezing spots off my skin. About the only time I need a swim suit these days is to take advantage of a hotel pool or hot tub when I’m traveling. And that’s on the rare occasions when I have remembered to pack the suit.

So once I find a suit, it will last a long time. A good thing, too, given the stress of the whole swim suit buying experience.

First there’s the sticker shock. Eighty-five bucks for a scant handful of Spandex and a couple of straps? Really? Per square inch, that’s as expensive as a registered Chihuahua puppy figured by the ounce.

Then there’s the challenge of finding something suitable. Avoiding the barely-there bikinis clearly meant for women several decades younger and a few (Okay, several. Well, maybe ten. Okay, okay, twenty.) pounds lighter than me. Avoiding the suits with flowing tops longer than today’s dresses that are clearly meant for women substantially larger and somewhat (well, maybe a little bit) older than me.

Then comes the actual trying on. Taking three or four possibilities into a dressing room and making sure the door is locked. Stripping down, noticing every odd mark your socks and jeans leave imprinted on your skin. Struggling into a suit (discovering halfway into the experience that it would have been easier to don the top of a two-piece by stepping into it than by pulling it on over one’s head). Then, sucking in everything that can be sucked in, taking that dreaded look in the mirror and checking out the rear view.

During swim suit season, dressing room mirrors really ought to have stickers with emergency hotline numbers for Weight Watchers and the nearest available fitness center.

The last time I tried on swim suits, twenty years and ten pounds ago, the “tankini” had just hit the market and was the only style available in that particular store. I put one on, tugged the bottom of the top down to meet the top of the bottom, and looked in the mirror. The suit didn’t look too bad. Then I took a breath. The top rolled itself up my tummy like a window shade. It wasn’t inspiring.

This time around, I managed to find a two-piece suit that covered the things that needed covered but that stayed put if I breathed. It didn’t bare things that didn’t bear baring, but neither did it come down to my knees. It was reasonably comfortable. It was even semi-stylish enough not to scream “woman of a certain age who can’t keep everything sucked in like she used to.” Close enough; I braced myself and bought it.

Thank goodness, that’s taken care of for the next twenty years.

Categories: Fashion | Tags: | 3 Comments

Don’t Follow Good Advice Too Closely

As bike wrecks go, it wasn’t that spectacular. I was pedaling along with the rest of the family—not racing, not trying to ride with no hands, not doing anything except follow my stepdaughter along the bike path. Until she cut a curve too short, swerved off of the pavement, tried to swerve back on, and crashed. I jumped/scrambled my bike over hers somehow and crashed just beyond her.

Yes, I was wearing a helmet. But my cheek still connected with the concrete hard enough to make my ears ring. Until then, I always thought seeing stars only happened in cartoons.

While I sat on the pike path collecting myself and realizing that blood was starting to drip from my scraped wrist, a woman who had been behind us stopped to inspect the damage. She told me earnestly, “That’s what can happen when you follow too closely.”

In that moment, I learned one of those difficult life lessons that are so good for one’s character.

Oh, not the lesson about staying a safe distance behind another cyclist. (And why is it, anyway, that people who ride bicycles are called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers?”) Believe me, I had already figured that out for myself.

No, what was good for my character was realizing I had developed enough internal wisdom and poise that I did not swear at this woman or call her names. Not only because I was too shaken up. Not only because it might have shocked the children. But because a) it wasn’t worth the trouble, and b) I recognized that she was well-intentioned and even caring in her own way. Never mind that her way was interfering, pushy, bossy, annoying, and condescending.

Or, worst of all, that she was right.

It’s a good thing, all these years later, that I’m over it.

Categories: Living Consciously | Leave a comment

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