Mistaken identity

Do you do the deep freeze dip?

Owning a second refrigerator or free-standing freezer is a luxury–certainly one of those first-world privileges many of us take for granted in our homes.

In my girlhood days, our family’s small chest freezer stood at the bottom of the basement stairs, a straight shot down from our kitchen–affording easy access to ice cream cartons, sausages and other mealtime basics for a hungry, active foursome.

On hot summer days, I welcomed the accelerating coolness experienced with each descending step; my bare feet slapped the cold concrete floor before I reached the freezer and stuck in a sweaty hand to grab an icy Popsicle or orange Push-Up.

My late mother-in-law had a jumbo-sized chest freezer in the basement of her Rochester home, and she kept it stocked with items I found both familiar (spinach squares, English muffins, orange juice concentrate, Swanson’s potpies and TV dinners) and new (phyllo sheets, puff pastry cups, Tupperware containers brimming with sourdough starter and baggies filled with summer garden-fresh pesto sauce).

One common element of each freezer I’ve encountered, and this absolutely includes my own, is the presence of mystery food–things that have been stashed there, unlabeled and undated, because OF COURSE one will remember what they are and when they were placed there. The truth is, the items’ identities and ages have been long since lost to the land of ice crystals and shrunken, dried out cells of edibility.

Shy away from the unknown? No, not I! I’ve broken out more mystery packages than I care to count, first thawing the suspicious parcel, then, if its form and flavor are failing to readily reveal themselves, heating up the item in question to see if it will shout its name out under a bit of cooking torture.

This method has yielded both success and failure on a case-by-case basis.

Sadly, memory fails me in conjuring up specific examples, but suffice to say that “mystery meat” isn’t a concept confined to school cafeterias.

My spouse recalls his father returning from male-bonding fishing trips and depositing packets of various fish species with his tolerant mother–who promptly dropped them in the aforementioned freezer, where they sometimes lingered indefinitely, suspended in frozen animation, too often destined in the distant future for the dump.

Unmarked bags of spaghetti sauce, ready-to-eat barbecue or thaw-and-heat chili have the misfortune of looking agonizingly identical, my mother points out from a few experiences with rapid menu adjustment.

The refrigerator contains its own share of mixed up leftovers–my dad swears he once bit into what he thought was an egg salad sandwich, only to unpleasantly discover he’d made himself a more unusual POTATO salad sandwich–but the freezer lends a definite je ne sais quoi to food products.

And that brings me to my own most recent frozen fumble.

On a recent morning, having driven three young scholars at three separate moments (6:55 a.m., 7:16 a.m. and 7:42 a.m.) to two different schools after tossing granola bars, fruit, juice and maybe a Pop-Tart or frozen waffle their way, I returned home, anticipating a handful of quiet minutes to consume a bit of breakfast with a second cup of coffee before embarking on the day’s tasks and appointments.

Hmmmm…there was some granola in the cupboard, and a partial cup of yogurt…how about throwing in a little fruit to round it out?

I opened the freezer and unearthed a bag of previously opened mango chunks beneath a package of hash browns. Sitting down with my coffee, bowl and spoon, I anticipated the taste of tropical sweetness combined with creamy yogurt. Yum.

But an unfamiliar flavor greeted my tongue as I took the first bite. Not as sweet as mango; earthier; stringier; could it be…BUTTERNUT SQUASH?

Why yes, it could. Days (okay, maybe weeks) ago, several sneaky squash squares had tumbled from a split sack in the freezer. Seeing the orange cubes, I’d accidentally chucked them into the mango mound rather than back with their root vegetable mates.

Time to clean the freezer–because Vitamin A by any other name does NOT taste as sweet.

Trust me.


The fifty mystique

Time is getting away from me.

I mean, really–where did 1984 go? Vanished, into thin air–over 30 years ago. Lately, when the ’80s arise in conversation or news, I nod assuredly, thinking to myself, “Oh yes, I know the ’80s.”

But in my mind, the ’80s happened, like, in the last decade, and it’s always a shocker to realize they in fact began…35 years ago. Impossible!

So yeah, I did have a “birthday of note” last week–there’s no escaping it. This child of ’65 is finally 50, though (despite scattered scars, lines and a few regrets) there are many times I feel more like a 19-year-old inside. This, I gather from a lifetime of exposure to literature, art, movies, news and other people, is not an unusual or unique phenomenon.

The drill goes something like this: “I look in the mirror and wonder who that old woman/man looking back at me is, and then I realize it’s me.”

As a firm subscriber to the “age is only a number” viewpoint, I remain determined not to take 50 too seriously. Fifty is still–kind of young? Okay, maybe not. It’s more…definitively middle-aged, even assuming (and this is a fairly major and optimistic assumption) that one will last on this earth all the way to 100.

There’s no denying it: 50 is halfway to 100, a full half century, five decades of life under one’s belt. No honest organization will dub a 50-year-old its “Young Entrepreneur of the Year,” or place one on its list of  “25 Business People Under 40 to Watch,” or consider a person of that age a prodigy.

No, the shift has happened; when one is 50, the ability to impress with one’s precociousness (assuming one ever had any) has long since flown out the window and it’s your place to begin imparting wisdom and advice (assuming one has accrued any worth sharing) to young duffers and new parents.

In 2012, the average U.S. life expectancy was 78.4 years. (It’s higher in Canada–is that because of better health care provisions or cleaner air?) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was lying in his unmarked pauper’s grave before he turned 36 years old. But the beloved pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t have her first book published until she was over 65.

It’s all what one makes of it, isn’t it?

Many people are far better at celebrating life’s little moments than I am; maybe this is due to my dour Scottish ancestry. But each 24-hour cycle is a gift, I believe, and, to quote the lyrics from a seasonal Sesame Street/Elmo video my kids used to love, “Every day couldn’t be Christmas; that wouldn’t be any fun.”

There are no guarantees anyone will live to a particular age, and no one can presume to know the number of earthly days s/he will be granted. Shouldn’t we make the most of each day as it comes before us?

On my recent birthday, which happened to be filled with music duties at church, followed by playing for a local matinee of “Godspell,” I arrived home in between activities to see…an impromptu clothesline strung between a lamppost and a tree trunk in my front yard. Pinned from end to end of the line were undergarments commonly known as “granny pants” and oversized, matronly brassieres, the kind Victoria’s Secret models shudder to think even exist.

The thoughtful friends who’d rigged this tasteful outdoor display had boldly, unmistakably penned the message, “Honk! Jane is 50!” And, this being 2015, photos of the daring daylight deed were already posted to Facebook.

There’s no going back after being punked in such a manner. Where does that leave me as I consider life after 50?

Mostly in a state of humility and gratitude–because I’ve been given so many second chances in life, more blessings than I deserve, a loving, generous family and friends who are willing to take walks, enjoy lunches, discuss books and movies, pick up the pieces, string up obnoxious underwear in my yard and compensate for or overlook my numerous inadequacies.

So what if I’m stuck in the ’80s? At this rate, I’ll be in the 80s again before I know it!



Car talk

In the first flush of a new romantic relationship, the sweet delights of that early rush of love and laughter may blind one to certain realities that tend to fully reveal themselves only with time.

Unduly influenced by appearance and hormones, people sometimes make partner choices that aren’t necessarily the best ones for them.

Alas, this may be the case with our family’s decades-long flirtation with Volvos. Too often we’ve been seduced by their clean, square lines…drawn in by their Swedish ancestry….turned on by their sexy turning radii…lost our hearts to their incredible visibility….lured by the promise of their longevity….swooned for their impeccable safety records.

But as we’ve reveled in the idea of our Volvo relationships, their down-the-road reality hasn’t always lived up to the sweet talk that initially revved our engines.

Way back in the late ’80s came our first encounter with Volvo dreams. Newly married ourselves, the 1983 dark green Volvo 240 DL (purchased used, with 100,000+ miles already under her enticing body; we’re never a Volvo’s first love) seemed like a boxy fantasy come true.

“I loved that car,” sighed my still-smitten spouse of the vehicle he used for his commute to and from downtown St. Paul.

Inevitably, we were betrayed. One dark, icy, snowy night, the car slid onto a slick highway median and things were never the same again. Oh, we tried to repair the relationship, but the vehicle wasn’t interested.

Moving along, we attempted to forget our Volvo disappointment and switched brands altogether, latching on to a (new!) Saturn wagon. A good car, to be sure, but somehow lacking the glamour of the Volvo we’d left in the rearview mirror.

A few years later, we lost our willpower and were sucked into another Volvo liaison–this time with a 1989 blue Volvo wagon (but it had a third rear-facing seat, and we had children!). It served us well, although we were bidding it auf wiedersehen before we knew it.

Time passed, but Volvos still tugged at our heartstrings…and we once again fell victim to those Swedish charms. Next up: a 1998 white Volvo V90 station wagon–surely a safe, reliable choice for our teen drivers? Let’s call the car “Blanca,” for easy reference.

Blanca was serviceable, if a little too hearse-like for our kids’ comfort at times.  But Blanca proved to have a mind of her own, and last winter–after a couple with no fits and starts–she began to assert herself. We should have known better; this aging blonde (252,000 miles on her from the outset) hailed from New Mexico.

Blanca refused to run for a good spell of the 2014 cold snap, demanding a new battery and other parts to keep herself looking–or maybe only feeling–more youthful. We showered her with spendy attention, but she was never quite satisfied.

Finally, we turned a cold shoulder on her–leaving the ivory maiden to linger, untouched, for several frigid days and nights while we frolicked without her in warmer climes. We wouldn’t be forgiven that folly.

Upon returning, Blanca stubbornly refused to budge. She wouldn’t emit so much as a groan, a purr, not even a growl–nada. We coaxed her, charged her up, talked to her, massaged the ice and snow from her windows, but still she ignored us.

Finally, as the weather warmed, Blanca ached for more attention, and after a long episode of charging, she suddenly returned to life. For three days she was operational; maybe we’d recaptured her heart. Too soon, though, the fickle girl had jilted us in the Walgreen’s parking lot, not unlike a teenage sweetie dumped by her dream date at the drive-in.

When her first full-time driver–our college-age son–came home for part of his recent break, Blanca sprang into action as if he were the one she’d been waiting for all along. She moved with little trouble, rolled happily along the city streets, carried her man wherever he wished to travel.

But as he prepared to return to school, Blanca slowed once more, as if she knew abandonment was approaching.

You’d think we’d have learned this lesson earlier; maybe we weren’t meant to be in a long-term relationship with a high-maintenance Volvo gal.

We should absorb the message: Blanca just isn’t our type.


Freaks of nature

Accidents will happen.

In fact, LOTS of accidents occur all the time. A recent New York Times article by Jeremy N. Smith cited the statistic that, in 2013, unintentional injuries (oh, so there are intentional injuries?) combined for the third highest global death toll–3.5 million–topped only by heart disease and stroke. To heck with Ebola!

Setting aside the extreme (death), one needn’t look far to find numerous examples of freak accidents that simply belong in the category of “believe it or not.”

For instance, one day in February Tammy Makram, manager of Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, was watching high school gymnasts leap, whirl, balance and fling their bodies through the air on the standard gymnastics apparatuses. As they defied gravity, performed feats at which many of us marvel and avoided injury on a second-by-second basis, spectator Makram walked across the gym floor in her “sensible” shoes–and promptly tripped/flipped over the vault’s runway, breaking her left arm.

My husband often jokingly utters the phrase, “You could get run over by a bus.” But–and this was no laughing matter–the college-aged daughter of old friends was studying abroad in Spain last summer when she was struck by a bus. She spent weeks fighting for her life; her recovery thereafter has been miraculous. Folks, you really can get hit by a bus.

Local fitness instructor and coach Tina Nickel spent years of her youth involved in sports such as softball, volleyball and swimming with nary a pulled muscle (okay, maybe a couple?) to show for her high level of activity.

Just a few years ago, though, while teaching a step aerobics class, she “stepped” down  and severely injured her foot. Go figure.

Nickel’s hockey-playing nephew, Colby–an active seventh grader who absorbed and delivered his fair share of checks during the nearly five-month hockey season with little ill effect–suffered an injury recently that could appear in The Random House Dictionary defining the words “freak accident.”

While Colby was hanging out with buddies in the Worthington Arena’s lobby during an open skate session, a kid near him split a plastic spoon against a table–and the sharp, splintered end of one piece was instantly propelled directly into Colby’s naked eye.

The spoon shard ripped his cornea right down the middle, and it required the expertise of an ophthalmic surgeon to repair it and save his vision. (Breathe a deep sigh of relief along with Colby and his parents; he appears to be mending well.)

Meanwhile, Worthington High School varsity goalie Gage Langerud weathered a brutal hockey season, logging hundreds of saves as pucks were fired his way in game after game. He, however, remained injury-free through it all.

Until, that is, the season wrapped up and he was playing an innocent game of knee hockey at home with his 10-year-old brother, Alec. In an ironic twist, Alec’s stick slashed Gage near the eye, causing a deep, one-inch gash on his upper eyelid.

Worries about potential injuries to my youngest son, who has a greater predilection for contact sports (soccer, football and hockey) than either of his two older siblings, plague me at times. “What if he suffers a concussion or a broken bone?” I fret.

It’s undeniable: Such injuries can and do occur in hockey and football with more frequency than in, say, cross country.

But then again, one might trip on a mat and break an arm, or go for a run and be hit by a bus–truly.

Maybe I should be more accepting; injuries and accidents can and do happen. Perhaps we should all resign ourselves to their inevitable, yet always unexpected and unwelcome, arrivals.

That’s what 95-year-old Elliott Royce does. Royce, a Twin Cities resident, was profiled by writer Jeff Stickler in the Star Tribune’s March 3 edition. Royce literally practices “safe falling” techniques (using an air mattress) daily. It must be working for him, because his 96th birthday is only a few weeks away and he’s going strong.

As the nursery rhyme “London Bridge” warned us all from infancy, “We all fall down.”

And how.


February songs

Conditions could definitely be worse. As I write, it’s 16 degrees and sunny outside, with a wind chill of only 4–nearly identical at the moment to what Paducah, Ky., happens to be experiencing. For us, this is practically spring break weather; for Kentuckians, it probably feels semi-apocalyptic.

Everything is relative–and yet, it’s still February, which means we Minnesotans are bound to be in the doldrums of winter for at least a few more weeks. Despite the fleeting charms of Valentine’s Day, February often feels like a month that must be endured before we can resolutely turn our heads in the direction of spring.

There are of course various ways to brighten these chilly days, and certainly the state tournament berths recently earned by the Worthington High School (WHS) gymnastics and wrestling teams are serving to perk up many people. (A hearty congratulations to these deserving teams on their successful seasons!)

For the past nine years, involvement with the WHS musical has preoccupied me for at least the early days of this short though underwhelming month. But due to a scheduling adjustment for 2015, I’ll keep cruising straight through February all the way to March 1 on the S.S. American with “Anything Goes!” as a rehearsal and “show band” accompanist.

This ship has sailed into Worthington before, most recently about 10 years ago, but an entirely new crew of students has been enthusiastically preparing during the past several weeks to present their own take on this mid-20th century farce, which bubbles over with the music of composer/lyricist Cole Porter, a master of the double entendre.

As an adult whose work doesn’t normally put me in everyday contact with large groups of high-spirited teenagers, I usually find the musical rehearsals quite entertaining. (Note to middle- and high school teachers: most of the rehearsals only last two to three hours, not a full day. You can’t be paid enough!)

Watching an active, dedicated collection of 14- to 18-year-olds master musical numbers, dance routines, dialogue exchanges and character personalities–especially of “types” they’ve fortunately never been, like gangsters and night club floozies–is gratifying, and a guaranteed way to take one’s mind off the snow and cold that patiently abide right outside the door in the parking lot.

It’s always amusing when the kids waiting their turn to take the stage begin chattering among themselves, forgetting the hushes dispensed by director Jon Loy until their volume tops that of those who are currently delivering lines or songs. So why should he need to bark, “Louder!” when they’re in the midst of a chorus number or finally have a chance to utter a few choice lines? It’s paradoxical; chalk it up to nerves and self-consciousness.

Last year’s “Wizard of Oz” incorporated more than a dozen Munchkins from Prairie Elementary school, but this year’s production is exclusively comprised of WHS ninth- through 12th graders. About 45 students will appear on stage, and roughly another 25 have been working behind the scenes on set, props or lighting. Still others are involved as instrumentalists in the show band.

They’d all appreciate your support of their January/February fine arts activity, which has no possibility of landing them at a state meet or netting them an All-Conference ranking–but it has kept them creatively engaged and taught them numerous lessons about perseverance, vocal projection, teamwork, personal responsibility and stage presence throughout the coldest days of another Minnesota winter.

And a night at the theater might make February end more pleasantly for you, too.

Advance purchase of tickets (all are reserved seats) for the WHS production of “Anything Goes!” is strongly encouraged. Contact Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center at 507-376-9101, or visit the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26, 27 and 28, and at 2:30 p.m. March 1. ISD 518 activity passes may be used for the March 1 show only, but tickets must still be reserved using the passes.





An elegy for RyKrisp

RyKrisp, say it ain’t so.

Although my family lacks any Scandinavian heritage (a highly convenient reason for avoiding lutefisk), RyKrisp–a flat, earthy-tasting cracker with undeniable Scandinavian roots–has always had a place in the kitchens of my life.

So when I spotted an article in the Jan. 30 edition of the Star Tribune headlined “The end of RyKrisp,” I was shocked. Shocked!

“No more RyKrisp?” I queried. How would the world continue to turn?

Certainly I should have taken a hint from the fact that, only a couple of months earlier when I’d sought to satisfy my RyKrisp habit, I had great difficulty locating it at a local grocery store. Soon, though, I found it at another store–and imagine my delight when I discovered it was on sale for only 99 cents a carton! (Looking back, this was a bad omen; WHY was it marked so low, low, low?) I threw five boxes into my cart that day; now I’m wishing I’d added five more.

What could be the appeal of this brown, coarse, hole-punched cracker that freely advertises itself as containing “12 grams of whole grain and 3 grams of fiber per serving?”

My late in-laws were huge RyKrisp fans; their fondness for the rectangular flatbread might, in retrospect, have even been a bonding point early on in our relationship. My mother-in-law was never caught without at least a few boxes of RyKrisp in her pantry, to be sure.

Though he recalls thinking as a child that it tasted somewhat like cardboard, my husband grew to love RyKrisp as much as his parents did. He holds dear boyhood memories of RyKrisp like some people do of Christmas mornings.

“I can hear the wrapper crackling as mom opened another package,” he mused fondly. “It was like a health food before we knew what health food was–and my dad grazed on it after work while waiting for mom to finish making supper. RyKrisp was definitely a staple snack at our house.”

Paired with a glass of tomato juice, or a scoop of cottage cheese, RyKrisp was the perfect complement for a quick lunch or light afternoon snack. While my mother says she has eaten RyKrisp with ham salad, a smear of light margarine or a dab of peanut butter, I knew people who crafted entire diets around the image of RyKrisp (and Tab, but that’s another story).

And I strongly suspect my father may have topped his RyKrisp, at least occasionally, with braunschweiger, but I usually had to leave the house when he pulled out that potent sandwich spread–so I can’t be quite sure.

Some of my favorite ways to enjoy RyKrisp include with a slice of flavorful cheese, smothered in tuna salad, layered with smashed avocado or–my secret indulgence–buried under gobs of Mrs. Gerry’s chicken salad. Add some iced tea and cantaloupe slices and your menu is complete.

But back to the end of something that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be allowed to die. Star Tribune reporter Mike Hughlett related that ConAgra Foods “has decided to exit the RyKrisp and rye cracker business” and will close its southeast Minneapolis RyKrisp factory in March, resulting in not just the death of a brand but the layoff of 15 employees.

According to Hughlett, the workers had seen the handwriting on the wall, with the plant recently operating only about two weeks out of each month.

To crudely borrow from I Corinthians 15:54-56: “RyKrisp has been swallowed up in progress. Where, oh RyKrisp, is thy endurance? Where, oh, RyKrisp, is thy cracker oven? We’ll taste thy crunch no more, nor know the flavor of thy Nordic origins. No thanks to ConAgra, which is depriving us of an innocent, healthy, nostalgic food pleasure.”

Don’t worry; I’ll hit the store tonight, before the rest of the RyKrispers out there read this.

RyKrisp, rest in peace.


Time management

My epitaph will never read, “Here lies a woman who was always on time.”

Please, do not confuse tardiness with irresponsibility; however, punctuality does not happen to be one of my personal virtues. How many years must be lived before resigning ourselves to the truth that certain goals may simply never be attained?

I’ve begged friends to “trick” me into timely arrivals by fudging starting times; I’ve set the clocks on my vehicle’s dashboard and bedside table several minutes ahead; I’ve resolved to leave earlier, jotting down my necessary stops and estimated travel times in great detail; but no luck. Usually, I’m still the last one to appear at meetings, rehearsals, sporting events, lunches and appointments.

The question I cannot seem to answer: Where does the time go?

Generally speaking, time itself possesses elusive, mysterious qualities.

Why is it, for instance, that when a person is in the midst of an enjoyable experience–at a party, wedding or on a date, or simply spending downtime performing a hobby or pastime of one’s choice, or frolicking on the playground during lunchtime recess as an elementary student–time passes ever so quickly?

Conversely, when one is waiting for a long-anticipated event, or is in the middle of a math class (sorry, Mr. Koller) or a confrontational conversation with a colleague, time drags on (and on)?

A time when the clock never seems to move is at the fitness class I frequent.

As much as I admire the instructor and like the healthy, invigorated feeling I have once the class is over, I’m never quite sure how we actually get to the end–because, I SWEAR, there are moments during the session when the clock completely ceases its motion.

“Find a focal point on the opposite wall that doesn’t move, and concentrate,” the instructor orders as we attempt to maintain the tree pose.

Easy enough–all I have to do is stare at the clock and I’m guaranteed stasis. As muscles burn and limbs threaten to crumple, it seems like an eternity passes before we are released for a brief recovery. Is it an equipment malfunction? Or merely a wrinkle in time?

But on Sunday mornings, when we would love even a few extra minutes of relaxation to savor a second cup of strong coffee while reading the paper before hustling the family to church, it seems we’ve been plunged into a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon in which the clock’s hands spin at warp speed to illustrate fast-forward time.

What? It’s 8:12 a.m. already? What happened to 7:23 a.m.? Or 8:02 a.m.? And before I can properly register 8:12 a.m., it’s already 8:51 a.m.–and I’m doomed for another late arrival, done in before the day is properly underway.

These days, there are unquestionably more time wasters at everyone’s beck and call than ever before.

Netflix? iPads? Smartphones? Downton Abbey? Minecraft? XBox? Twitter? Facebook? Snapchat? Instagram? ESPN?

Pick your poison; whatever your time-sucker of choice, it’s primed and at the ready to help the innocent (and the guilty) while away their lives and distract their attention from pithier thoughts, weightier duties, personal interactions.

Although most of us no longer need to devote hours daily to time-consuming, labor-intensive tasks like churning butter, baking bread or twisting hay to warm our houses, we’ve traded those jobs for the “modern conveniences” of commuting in space-age vehicles (only to slow to a crawl in big-city traffic jams), creating Shutterfly books, browsing in village-sized malls or perusing the Internet for hours on end to “save time” buying gifts or necessities online.

There are no solutions to be suggested here, merely reassurance that humans have always wrestled with determining the best ways to spend our minutes and fill our lives.

 Evidence? Ecclesiastes 3:1, which reminds, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
Or, more recently ( well, 1915), when the poet T.S. Eliot mused in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “There will be time, there will be time; to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to…create, and time for all the works and days of hands…time for you and time for me…”
We can only hope. Now I’m out of time.


Travel jottings

A key advantage of traveling is returning home with a renewed appreciation for one’s normal surroundings and day-to-day existence. You know, the comforts of home and all that.

Just after Christmas, my family experienced a first: we journeyed to Florida, where our daughter was spending the week with the Worthington High School marching band. The rest of us alternately relaxed and supported the band in its appearances connected with the National Outback Bowl Festival.

It took some getting used to for this group of pale, sweater-clad, snow hardy Minnesotans to grow accustomed to wearing shorts and sandals in late December, but after a couple days, we were getting the hang of it.

Florida culture, however, was a slightly different story.

Even the sight of sparkly red and green holiday decorations tucked among blooming azaleas, palmettos and hawthorn shrubs was jarring and comical to me; Santa and his reindeer simply “pop” more when set against white, gray or dull brown backdrops.

Then, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was far wider and more starkly evident than it tends to be in Minnesota–at least in small towns such as ours, where we live side-by-side with people of multiple ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds on a daily basis.

Florida’s zoning laws leave something to be desired, as well, with fast-food restaurants, tax preparers’ offices and massage therapy practices abutting homes with no clear rhyme or reason.

Did I mention MASSAGE? Judging by the number of such businesses we saw in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, local residents must be lining up for no fewer than two massages per capita each week.

But many of these businesses seemed to be the kind of places one might find along dark alleys or unkempt streets in the North Star State, not on major thoroughfares. For instance, almost daily we passed “Jennie’s Gentle Touch.” Now, “Jennie” might well be on the up-and-up, but something about her haphazardly shuttered windows made me wonder.

And yet, massage had nothing on tattoo shops. There were tattoo/piercing storefronts on every block, and, in observing many Floridians, a majority was taking full advantage of the suggestion and opportunity.

It was Ybor City, however–Tampa’s Latin Quarter, founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers–that made the most indelible impression.

The site of the Outback Bowl’s New Year’s Eve parade, Ybor City’s historic Seventh Avenue is generously peppered with cigar shops, tattoo/piercing parlors, bars, nightclubs, funky cafes and other establishments that gave staid Minnesotans pause–“Liquid,” for instance, a corner strip joint for men that promised totally nude dancing and, if the photos and posters liberally displayed on its walls and (open) windows are an indication, it delivered.

Though we witnessed no flashings, Ybor City’s New Year’s Eve was somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, with beads being thrown to spectators and parties taking place on balconies above street level while loud guffaws and boozy odors wafted from gaping bar doors.

Still, the marching Trojans maintained their focus with admirable discipline, doing their best to stay in step and perform as trained even while parade goers leaned over street barricades mere inches from their faces and the general hullaballoo around them rivaled anything they had previously experienced along a parade route.

In the immediate vicinity of Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the site of the Outback Bowl itself, numerous adult shops and “gentlemen’s clubs” beckoned to passersby–The Doll House and Bare Assets were two names that stuck out.

Maybe we’ve been too long in the rural backwaters and too infrequently in big cities of late, but these experiences brought to mind a school field trip to Rochester, Minn., when I was about 10. Stepping out of the bus directly across from the signature Mayo Building, I looked up–and up, and up–craning to see the top of what was then probably the tallest structure I’d ever personally viewed.

My balance was upset and I toppled, inelegantly and embarrassingly, into the low hedge next to the sidewalk, requiring a friend’s hand to right myself.

Travel can do that:  jar our senses, stir imaginations and open eyes to other possibilities.

It might also help us endure another three (or so) months of chill air and snow-rutted driveways.


Slices of life

It all started with a(nother) student fundraiser: Buy pies, earn money for prom activities. Okay, my daughter’s involved, I’ll bite.

So although I normally prefer to make my own baked goods–especially sweet ones–I ordered not one but THREE pies from a restaurant’s bakery. At the family’s behest, this meant French silk, wild berry and coconut cream. What’s not to like?

But the date we’d chosen for pickup happened to fall in the midst of a busy weekend, bustling with hockey games, an out-of-town swim meet, rehearsals and church obligations. Because I was on the road to the swim meet with the fundraising child, I delegated the pie pickup process to Mr. Hubby. He was willing, although admittedly this is not the type of task he executes on a frequent basis.

The look of surprise on his face when I arrived home mid-evening wasn’t something I was anticipating.

“Pies? Oh, the pies,” he replied to my pastry inquiry.

He headed to the garage, returning with a bag in which a restaurant employee had stacked the pie boxes, one atop another.

“They were in the trunk,” he volunteered.

Some people–specifically my husband–would justifiably call me an irritating control freak about certain things, like parking…and where delicate pastries might be positioned in vehicles for the best chance of intact arrival at intended destinations.

Therefore, when the first pie was removed from the bag, I wasn’t shocked to see….whipped cream smeared over the plastic window at the top, and broken pieces of crust scattered across the pie’s once pristine topping.

Shocked, no; displeased, yes.

Each pie looked as though it had survived a hurricane, with one crust tilting precariously out of the pan, another crust completely broken off its entire circumference, the third mangled beyond wild berry recognition.

Suffice to say my sharp, critical tongue leaped ahead of any empathetic thoughts. I should have considered that my spouse had navigated a full day of errands, lunch prep for two hungry boys, household chores and catch-up work for his job while I had merely ridden a bus two hours to a swim meet and cheered in between chatting with other parents and swimmers.

How was he to know that loosely stacking three pies in a sack and setting them in a vehicle’s trunk while driving hither and yon would result in a pie tsunami?

(Don’t answer that.)

Using rubber scrapers, pie servers and forks, I did my best to reassemble the sorry confections and make them presentable enough to serve, at least to family members.

Over coffee and dessert, we laughed a little, I apologized a lot for my earlier harsh critique, and we considered the morals of this bittersweet tale.

Whether French silk, coconut cream or wild berry, each slice tasted just as delectable as it would have had the pies remained picture perfect and intact.

Consider: Appearance doesn’t affect what’s inside of us, if the right ingredients are used. We might look a bit different on the outside, but our “flavor” remains essentially the same. Brokenness happens, and even though we might be all-too-conscious of our own imperfections, others who take small “tastes” of us and our personalities can barely (if at all ) detect those flaws we think must be so evident.

Sometimes it’s easier to share a pie (or share with a person) that’s already been broken, because we aren’t as reluctant to cut into it and risk disturbing its perfection. Good intentions may be more important than ideal outcomes, and showing appreciation to others when they’ve tried to be of assistance is a  kinder, more gracious response than expressing thoughtless criticism of a perceived shortcoming.

Oh–and maybe, when you eat “broken” pie, unwanted calories escape through the cracks.

From now on we just might shake up, topple or overturn all our pies. Because really, who needs a perfect pie?



The long road to Bethlehem

Miracles do occur.

To this I can personally attest, because another one happened last weekend when my talented partner Jeanette and I weathered another in an increasingly long list of Sunday School Christmas programs. We were aided by a most helpful crew of assistants, tech people and Sunday School teachers–we thank you most sincerely.

You’ve got to hand it to the 26 three- to 10-year-olds who pulled it off; they were ultimately adorable, engaging, expressive, enthusiastic and spiritually inspiring as they innocently shared the Christmas message via music, words and actions.

The congregation appreciated their efforts, as did we. Was it the softly sung “Away in a Manger” or the belted out “Let Them In” (to the tune of that 2014 favorite, “Let it Go”) that was more charming?

Hard to say, but the overall effect resulted in a sanctuary that resounded with applause at the program’s conclusion.

So, you ask: Where’s the miracle?

That would be surviving this annual journey to Bethlehem. The moving target of students, with attendance varying due to illness, sports, family vacations, Thanksgiving and more, is always a challenge to navigate, as we try to keep track of who was present when we introduced a new song, or passed out speaking parts, or outfitted costumes.

Then there’s the fact that Jeanette and I more closely resemble Laurel & Hardy than Balthazar, Melchior and Casper.

One Sunday in late November was a doozy. The children’s choir was singing a number for the church service, but we were frantically preparing packets of lyrics for rehearsal purposes and going over Christmas program songs on top of the needs for the day at hand.

The first casualty: a stapled finger, as the packets were speedily assembled. Pulling out the staple was a quick remedy; I mean, Jeanette barely noticed. (She’s from North Dakota, after all.)

Next up: as Jeanette dashed to the office to make a few extra copies, a door unexpectedly closed behind her–and, unbeknownst to me, she became locked in a vestibule between the office and the pastor’s study, with a door to the parking lot at her back.

What choice did she have when no one responded to her desperate knocks but to exit the church and reenter (in frigid weather) through another door? I was surprised to see her walking in, and cluelessly asked her where she had gone.

As we continued collating, playing a game of beat-the-clock before church began, blood suddenly began dripping on a paper. What’s this? A bloody nose! Good thing neither of us is squeamish. The missing car keys at the end of the morning capped it all off.

During one Saturday morning practice session, Jeanette was in the midst of directing the 20-some kids in attendance when her cell phone rang. I kept playing the piano, monitoring her conversation with one ear cocked as the youth continued warbling, “Angels, We Have Heard on High.”

“You did WHAT??” I heard, seeing Jeanette’s eyes open wide in horror. “WHERE?”

Nothing like learning your child has just projectile-vomited in a friend’s vehicle while hitching a ride to a sporting event. But the show went on.

The Sunday before the program, things seemed to be coming together. Arriving almost on time (a miracle in itself for typically tardy me), I tossed my cell phone and coat on a front pew before settling into place at the keyboard.

But later, after church, I couldn’t locate my cell phone. A desperate search ensued, with me carefully rethinking my earlier movements and retracing my steps. No luck.

Hours later, I was leaving home with my daughter, ready to head to the church to hunt for it again, when I asked her to try calling my phone just in case I’d accidentally dropped it in the car and we’d hear it ring.

“Hello?” Someone had answered it! But who?

Jeanette’s son, who heard something in his mother’s bag and checked it out, thinking it was her phone (which happens to be identical to mine–oops). Turned out she had TWO phones–and one of them was mine. Mystery solved.

We won’t soon be mistaken for the Wise Men/women, but I strongly suspect God isn’t finished with us yet.

Joy to the world!