Feeding frenzy

July 23 was National Hot Dog Day.

I know this only because “Todd,” my tubular meat-loving friend, alerted me to the date.

While I’m not sure how many hot dogs “Todd” has recently consumed, I regret to share that Joey Chestnut, the national hot dog-eating champion for eight consecutive years, was dethroned in the annual July 4 contest at Coney Island. His successor: Matt Stonie, who placed second to Chestnut in 2014, but took the title this time around by downing 62 hot dogs and buns.

Doesn’t the simple thought of that make your intestines rebel in unpleasant ways?

But eating massive quantities of one type of food and/or engaging in competitive eating are neither rare nor recent phenomena.

A few months ago while researching antiquated Daily Globes for my weekly “Looking Back” column, I uncovered the gem of Jim Vogelaar.

Fifty years ago, Vogelaar was a 22-year-old father and husband from George, Iowa, who happened to love bananas. He made the mistake of boasting to a friend that bananas were, in fact, his favorite fruit and that he could “probably eat a whole box of them in 10 hours.”

Is it surprising that when Vogelaar’s friend bet he couldn’t do so, Vogelaar accepted the dare? Vogelaar proceeded to begin stuffing himself with his “favorite fruit,” ultimately eating 41 pounds and 10 ounces of bananas over 10 hours.

When Vogelaar returned home, his slyly humorous wife asked him if he’d like a banana.

Vogelaar apparently declined that offer, but otherwise seemed to suffer no ill effects from his banana binge–and continued to contend that bananas were among his favorite foods.

Last year we attended a firemen’s pancake breakfast following church one fall Sunday and were happy to tuck into our hotcakes aside our friends and fellow parishioners Steve and Anita Leach.

It’s important to know that Steve and Anita are an incredibly fit, trim, active couple–indeed, they each won titles in their respective age categories at the Tri For Health in Jackson late last month–but they also enjoy eating.

Steve (a 6’2 male who works hard and additionally excels at hunting, fishing and storytelling) kept loading up on pancakes that forenoon, so conversation naturally turned to “how much.”

It became clear that Steve could be as dominant in a pancake-eating contest as he is in a triathlon, and I began asking him what other foods he could pack away en masse.

The list was mouth-watering and savory: onion rings, mashed potatoes (“with gravy, and only REAL potatoes,” Steve specified), chili–and skim milk and coffee (if beverages count).

And although Steve didn’t win any awards with these meals, he revealed he had once chowed down 50 mango-habenera buffalo wings at a sitting, and on another occasion he chewed through nine eight-ounce sirloin steaks.

“I leave the bones so clean the dogs would be mad at me,” Steve declared. “Fat seems to be where all the flavor is, man.”

Whether or not dogs are aware Steve is depriving them of good lickings, other humans might be jealous that he can polish off so much good food without wearing the physical evidence of excess calories.

But it’s all in a day’s eating for certain lucky people, like banana man Vogelaar or hot dogger Chestnut.

And if you happened to miss celebrating National Hot Dog Day, never fear–National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day (Aug. 4) is right around the corner.

Roads to relaxation

Interstate 90, which stretches across these great United States of America from Boston, Mass., to Seattle, Wash., passes Worthington roughly three-fourths of a mile north of my house.

Even from that distance, the I-90 “road roar” resulting from speeding trucks, buses, campers, SUVs and motorcycles can reach our windows, rudely forcing its way into interior spaces, when the wind blows just right.

That roar has always been, to my ears, a rather lonely, wistful noise, telling tales of travelers unknown to me–some perhaps weary, others anticipatory, a few (maybe newlyweds embarking on their honeymoon?) possibly delighted or giddy–and of journeys not yet at their ends.

It’s also a sound that can invite engagement, especially during the summer months when thoughts of heading out on a wide open blacktop to explore, relax or reconnect are especially appealing.

Almost all summer vacations, whether people are bound for points north, south, east or west, begin with a road stint of some length.

In my girlhood, summer commonly meant a trip to northern Colorado, where my paternal grandparents lived. From our home in North Mankato, the distance always felt (at least to this kid) to last half as long as summer itself.

Travel was, naturally, different in the 1970s than it is today. First of all, air conditioning was much more “optional” in vehicles then, and it wasn’t an option our family always enjoyed.

Memories of wet washcloths kept cold in ice-filled plastic bags roll my way. We’d drape them across our necks or mop our faces with them when the hot, dusty wind of the Great Plains sweeping into our car was unbearable.

As night fell and the air cooled somewhat, we all quieted down and could actually hear the radio playing haunting, plaintive ’70s tunes like “Me and You and  a Dog Named Boo” or Paul Simon’s “If I Could” (“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail….”).

With no cell phones, a flat tire or overheating radiator warranted a more panicked feeling than it might now, and when kids grew bored on a 14+-hour drive, there were no DVD movies, iPods, iPads or even Game Boys to provide distraction.

There was, however, my older brother, who seemed invariably to sprawl across the full length of the back seat (seat belts were not mandatory!), propping his size 13, malodorous feet atop a pillow that, inconveniently enough, happened to rest upon my lap.

He seemed to be constantly chewing grape-flavored bubble gum, and the combination of smelly feet with that artificial fruit scent was almost enough to make me lose my cookies and carrot sticks.

As fate would have it, I was also very prone to motion sickness, so the need to fight nausea (sadly, a battle I didn’t always win) was ever present.

Both of us were voracious readers (with extremely divergent tastes–one year, he read Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” cover-to-cover at least three times while en route), although that’s not to say we were always wrapped up in books. I know we complained about the heat, the travel time and the boredom as much as any other kids, and it’s a certainty we engaged in more than our fair share of bickering.

“Mom! Make him get over on his side,” I can practically hear myself yelling even now. Or, “He’s popping his gum in my face!” or, worse, “He stuck his feet up my nose!”

Crossing endless Nebraska one hot July day, I had to use the bathroom so badly I was nearly crying. (Whining? Definitely.) We were off the interstate, and only undulating ribbons of road presented themselves in the shimmering heat for dozens of miles–no service station or town in sight.

My brother capitalized on my tormented state, teasing me by telling me there’d be no place to stop until we reached Colorado.

Finally, with all my will power spent and my bladder threatening to burst, we crested a hill and saw a small gas station not far off. We were going to stop or bust, I asserted.

Relieved at last, I emerged from the grimy little bathroom to see my family laughing.

“Wee Town, U.S.A.” read the station’s sign.

Some road trips are unforgettable.

 

Wednesday in the park with Mike

During the fleeting days of a Minnesota summer, residents take their pleasures whenever they can, and wherever they choose. For some people this means long, lazy days at a lake; others retreat to campgrounds, whether wooded or by water, and certain families spend dozens of hours at baseball diamonds.

Me? I spend Wednesday evenings throughout June and July at Chautauqua Park, playing in the “Amazing” Worthington City Band’s clarinet section. (And every Monday night is set aside for band rehearsals.)

What’s really amazing: My musical summertime tradition has been maintained for nearly two decades now, and as my three kids have grown and also learned instruments, they’ve joined the band’s ranks as well. My tolerant husband is left to sit among the spectators, after having patiently taken child watch duty during the kids’ younger years–and he, too, occasionally gets into the act as a concert emcee.

My family is only one of many with numerous participants in the local city band; there are multiple examples of instrumentalists with various family connections–parent/child, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and grandkids–you name it.

And two decades of involvement pale in comparison to that of at least a dozen band members, some of whom have been in the band for 40 or more years. The “Amazing” Worthington City Band itself has been serving up summer concerts since 1893, due to the ongoing support of the City of Worthington and loyal audiences.

Since joining the band in 1996, I’ve enjoyed playing under the baton of several directors. Galen Benton was the first, and although he’s largely retired from his directing days, he continues to frequent the band’s tuba section–and will be playing his accordion for the concert’s intermission entertainment tomorrow night.

With Jon Loy’s able direction, the band’s ranks swelled with Worthington High School students, and in July 2011 he led a 55-member contingent to Worthington’s sister city of Crailsheim, Germany, where the band (along with the Great Plains String Quartet) was met with terrific hospitality and appreciation everywhere they performed.

This summer marks the second season with Mike Peterson at the city band’s helm. Peterson retired not long ago from a lengthy career as director of the Fulda High School band, and he brings experience, earnestness and discipline to the job. Like the preceding directors, he’s also been careful not to fiddle with most of the band’s traditions–like the kiddie march that immediately follows intermission, for instance.

As Peterson has said, “When something is working, you don’t want to mess it up.” So children frolicking in the park pause in their antics to follow two teenage band mates (bearing buckets of candy, the children’s ultimate reward) on a meandering course among trees and lawn chairs while the band plays a sprightly tune. And Peterson has followed in Loy’s footsteps, and in those of the directors before them, in starting each concert with “Say It With Music” and closing with “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Having played in the Mankato Municipal Band as a high schooler, what I love about being in the Worthington city band is the feeling of being transported back to my 16-year-old self, when band nights were a break from my summer waitressing shifts and a chance to reconnect with some musical friends and my instrument.

It was also a time to experience the same sort of multi-generational fun I relish here. Never will I forget the first rehearsal at which I sat next to the legendary Leas Schwickert, wondering how I’d ever be able to play “The Stars & Stripes Forever” with the same accuracy and aplomb he displayed.

And there was nothing quite like performing in Mankato’s Sibley Park, with the scent of roses and snapdragons wafting one’s way during concerts.

In Worthington, it’s Lake Okabena and its cooling breezes that beckon on concert evenings. Old-timers tell us the popcorn wagon’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the proceedings, but traditions and music otherwise prevail, allowing the hour to unfold in a comfortably predictable manner.

Let the band play on.

An accidental tourist

Tuesday: my draw as the “carpool mom” for four 14-year-old hockey players.

The round trip to Sioux Falls, S.D., for the boys’ full-throttle day camp meant the intervening hours were mine alone, and I hoped to make the most of them.

With two articles to write, a book to read and an errand to run, there was little doubt seven hours would pass quickly; certainly it was smarter to remain in South Dakota rather than drive over and back twice.

But reality often intrudes, and schedules have a way of magically rearranging themselves as if under the spell of Samantha’s twitching nose in an episode of “Bewitched.”

After scurrying out of the house with my son shortly past 7 a.m. and collecting the other three boys, all seemed to be on course. Once I’d dropped off the largely silent, sore (it was Camp Day 2) foursome at the Scheels IcePlex, I gassed up at a forgettable “C” store along Cliff Avenue before heading to Falls Park, a site I’d briefly visited only once before during a driving rainstorm on a chilly Saturday afternoon.

On Tuesday morning, though, conditions featured a gentle breeze, 68 degrees and a picture-perfect blue sky dotted with cotton candy clouds. Rushing water gushed appealingly over the quartzite cliffs; suddenly I didn’t feel so much like working.

In fact, I was surprised to discover that, despite the idyllic weather, I didn’t feel very good at all. What I felt was sleepy and lightheaded–was it the previous night’s late bedtime? Too much (or too little?) coffee? Never minding the reason, I chose a shady spot in a still sparsely filled lot with a direct view of the falls and, feeling like a vagrant, began reading days-old newspapers I’d brought along before lying back even farther to close my eyes in an effort to recover and get back on my self-imposed track.

Maybe an hour later, I emerged from the vehicle to stroll the grounds, first visiting the well-tended restrooms before walking closer to marvel at the falls.

I perused a few historical markers (relieved at not having been among the Dakota Penitentiary inmates of the 1880s and ’90s who were required to quarry and haul the very stone that was then used to secure them within the prison’s borders–and, hey, wasn’t Frederick Manfred a MINNESOTA writer, not a South Dakota one? Oh, he considered himself a Dakota territory author, the sign helpfully explained) and then climbed the stairs of the observation tower.

What a vista! I could totally see every grouping of Falls Park guests taking selfies!

Upon returning to my van, I noticed a family piling out of another sporting a Louisiana license plate. Dad was first, ball cap, sunglasses and smartphone all in place, followed by two energetic brown-haired daughters, about 8 and 11 years old. Mom brought up the rear, first releasing a three-year-old girl from a car seat before grabbing her own smartphone and trying to catch up.

“This is so cool,” shrieked the 8-year-old, clambering precariously over a quartzite outcropping.

Both she and her older sister gripped smartphones in their hands, not viewing the falls with their naked eyes but rather through their phones’ camera feature as they madly snapped pictures, paying little attention to their rugged path.

“Girls, look out,” urged Louisiana Dad. “There’s a lot of vacation ahead.”

Having my fill of the falls, I drove downtown and, on a whim, walked to the Old Courthouse Museum (“Free!” proclaims an I-90 billboard of the attraction) and immersed myself in Sioux Falls’ origins.

An exhibit addressing pioneer prairie trail hardships (making my trip from Worthington seem like a dream) was eye-opening, and it was terrific to see the extensive exhibit about the “architectural godfather of Sioux Falls,” Wallace L. Dow, who also designed Worthington’s own Historic Dayton House in 1890.

After a delicious lunch (“Try the Number One!”) at Sanaa’s Gourmet Restaurant a few blocks away, I paged through a Sioux Falls visitors’ guide while watching the end of the boys’ ice time.

Four tired teens trooped into the van, all energy melted on the ice. My work still lay ahead, but spending the day as an unintended tourist was so revitalizing I barely noticed the hockey odor filling my contemporary prairie schooner.

Barely.

Bagging it

Summertime, and the living is easy.

Says who? The living is downright complicated, at least with three active kids who seem to be constantly on the go, whether that’s a trip down the street or to a destination halfway around the world.

This season, our comings and goings are fast and furious, and seldom will all five of our immediate family members be in the same place for very long–or be headed the same direction at any given time.

1. Make a packing list

First up: Sending our 14-year-old eighth grader on a trip to Washington, D.C., with 18 classmates and a few long-suffering adult chaperones. This should be a no-brainer, right? His two older siblings had done this tour in previous years–no challenge.

But wedge in the start of band camp and afternoons filled with driver’s training classes and the time available to plan quickly dwindled.

Add to this our daughter’s two days of section track meet competition within three days and the need to dispatch our college boy to Germany for two months and the fun was just beginning.

2. Roll, don’t fold.

Thank heaven for little girls–or at least teenage girls like my daughter who have already perfected the art of jamming as much clothing as possible into suitcases.

Patiently she sat on the floor of her elder brother’s room, neatly rolling his shirts and pants and arranging them with geometric precision as he tolerated her assertive comments about what he should or shouldn’t include with much more courtesy than he did his mother’s.

3. Know your airline’s baggage fee policy

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” wise people often remind us. But after putting my kid on a bus to the Twin Cities with his battered blue carry-on, only to return home to (finally!) read the fine print in his travel packet, I realized his bag measured at least a full three inches larger than what this particular airline claimed it would accommodate.

Or…could it? We’d used that bag as a carry-on for previous flights without incident, but those flights had been with different airlines. Would he be the one to hold up the entire group, with an oversized piece of luggage that couldn’t be crammed or stuffed into the overhead compartment? Did he have enough money (I doubted it!) to pay a “checked bag” fee on the spot?

My brain worked overtime, landing consistently on worst-case scenarios, until I sent a frantic text message to one of the aforementioned long-suffering chaperones, informing him of the potential dilemma.

“No worries,” he blithely responded. “Now get some sleep.”

Easier said than done. Of course, my fears (and four hours of lost sleep) were all for naught, as his bag passed muster both coming and going without so much as a batted eyelash on the part of a well-groomed flight attendant.

4. Use your personal item wisely.

Planning for two months in Germany, with various weather conditions and clothing needs to anticipate, was trickier than preparing for three days in D.C. And the technological advancements of 2015 make a guy’s backpack take on an entirely different life–not to mention value–than the one I carried with me for a similar journey in 1985.

Camera? Check. Cell phone? Check. Laptop? Check. Charging cords for every possible gadget under the sun? Check, check, check. Whatever happened to Dentyne, a few good paperbacks and a splashy new magazine, huh?

4. Follow the 3-1-1 rule.

The 3-1-1 rule: could this also be loosely interpreted as three kids going multiple places in one summer equals one enormous parental headache?

It was a relief to know the eldest smoothly navigated security and customs (the latter in Amsterdam; “The Dutch were kind to me,” he obligingly shared), was quickly collected at the airport and is underway with his German adventure.

Meanwhile, the youngest survived the whirlwind D.C. trip, safely arrived home and is now alternating between running like the wind and complaining that “there’s nothing to do.” Ah, normalcy.

Still to come: At least four more weeklong camps of different sorts for various kids, one family vacation for four, one 30th college reunion, one college junior to prep for the dorms, one wedding and an ongoing college search for the rising high school senior.

Eh, by the end of the summer, I’ll be a packing pro–or I’ll simply be ready to pack it in.

Let them (and us!) eat cake

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” — Mae West

In April 1995, we were nearly brand-new Worthington residents.

My husband had been working at his local job for a couple of months while I was home with our six-month-old son—a radically different situation for me than the full-time professional position I’d previously held for several years, complete with frequent travel and non-stop interaction with other adults.

Aside from my husband’s work colleagues and a few other similarly stunned first-time mothers I was gradually getting to know at Early Childhood/Family Education classes, we knew virtually no one.

In particular, we knew no one who was graduating from high school, or whose child was graduating from high school.

So when Worthington High School’s commencement rolled around, we knew this: We weren’t invited to a single graduation party, not one, though evidence of their existence was all around us.

Driving around town that weekend, we noticed red and black balloons pointing the way to open garages bursting with metal folding chairs, numerous people and long tables lined with seniors’ photos, medals, ribbons, certificates and plaques.

Not to mention food—and cake.

“Congrats, Grad!” was boldly lettered on several signs staked in the yards of homes in our Okabena Heights neighborhood wherein Class of ‘95ers resided. I could smell the ham buns and mile-high frosting on deliciously decorated cake squares from the sidewalk as I pushed our kicking, cooing boy, content in his navy-and-white-striped stroller, past the parties.

Oh, the chattering, laughing groups of adults and teens clearly familiar with each other, and with each other’s histories, caused a few pangs in my heart, but even more troubling was this realization: There were dozens upon dozens of pieces of frosted graduation cake out there, whether chocolate, white or marbled varieties, but not one of them was destined for my stomach that year.

So intense became my craving for and preoccupation with CAKE that I was nearly salivating. Sure, I could have simply gone to the store and bought a cake, or….could I have dared?…..walked up to one of those garage parties and nabbed a slice—who would have noticed, or cared?—but that seemed to defeat the purpose.

I was still an outsider, and stolen cake couldn’t possibly taste as sweet.

What a difference 20 years makes.

That first spring was the only year I stoically endured the absence of graduation cake. By May 1996, we were invited to at least one party (at which cake was, happily, served), and thereafter we’ve never had fewer than two or three graduation parties to attend.

In recent years, we’ve had to devote at least two weekends each May to nothing but attending graduation open houses. A trend toward changing up menus and not always serving cake has worried me—two weeks ago, we attended three parties and there was no cake to be had at any of them!—but my fears were allayed last weekend.

We grabbed a spreadsheet of times and locations and stocked up on cards and cash before mixing and mingling our way through 14 parties on one day and five on the next. There was more than enough cake spread among the sites to satisfy even my greedy sweet tooth, as well as bountiful supplies of ice cream, cookies, cream cheese mints and other tantalizing treats at the various stops.

Teachers, and high school teachers in particular, are certain masters of navigating the graduation party circuit, though some of them who are self-proclaimed introverts admit to finding the ritual occasionally awkward.

They might even acknowledge growing tired of graduation cake, with the dozens of open houses they sometimes feel obligated to attend.

Me? I enjoy a party, especially when it comes complete with cake. And having suffered through that lonely spring without a crumb of graduation cake, I never take an invitation for granted.

Besides, as our kids graduate from high school and move on in life, eventually our list of graduation parties will dwindle and we’ll once again be on the outside looking in.

Until then, I think I’ll have another piece.

 

 

 

The fourth child

Four children: two boys, two girls.

That was my girlhood ideal, when musing about my potential, distant future as a mother or playing house with friends under the plum tree in my back yard on Monroe Avenue. I’m guessing the magic number was helped along by favorite books, like “Little Women” (featuring that famous family of four daughters–Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy).

I loved bestowing dreamy names on the “kids” who were the offspring of my Barbie and Ken dolls–Amery, Adrienne or sometimes Graham–incidentally, none of which made the cut when naming my REAL progeny.

But as I recently notched the mid-century mark, it seemed fairly clear the three children with whom my husband and I have been blessed–in boy-girl-boy order, and not necessarily at the “perfect” intervals I once envisioned–would be the extent of my brood.

Enter Vanessa.

Vanessa Pazurek, 17, is a quintessential contemporary German girl and the 2014-15 exchange student from Worthington’s long-time sister city, Crailsheim. Her home, where she grew up with her older sister Madeleine and their parents, Waldemar and Michaela, actually lies about three miles outside of Crailsheim in the village of Jagstheim.

For the past seven weeks, however, Vanessa has been our “fourth child,” rounding out my old wish of a two girl/two boy family for a short period.

We’d discussed the possibility of hosting an exchange student in the past, but the timing had never seemed quite right. Vanessa’s search for a third host family, and our (temporarily) 33 percent emptied nest, happened to nicely coincide.

Vanessa (who owns one of those “fantasy child” names I’d cherished in bygone days) has contributed to a full-house feeling and been a fun addition to our home front.

An exchange student–and especially one like Vanessa, who came our way after having already readily adapted to two other local families–arrives more fully formed than the three brand-new infants we brought home from the hospital as our biological kids.

Discovering her talents, preferences and sense of humor has been largely a delight.

Orange juice, Perrier, Nutella, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, yogurt and brotchen-like bread–especially the buns from Panaderia Mi Tierra in downtown Worthington–are all on the must-have list here lately.

Deli meat? Not so much.

“Ah, my favorite breakfast,” sighed a contented Vanessa one Saturday morning when sitting down to a sliced bun–provolone cheese on one side and Nutella on the other–along with a generous mug of hot chocolate and a glass of orange juice.

Although our “other” three children have all been or still are runners during track season, Vanessa has nudged us from our comfort-zone bleacher seats to the field event areas, as she has tried her hand at throwing the shot-put and discus, as well as ably navigated the triple jump.

At Easter dinner, Vanessa gamely joined in our family traditions and entertained Grandma and Grandpa with photos of her German family and friends, easily conversing in her charmingly German-accented English.

And while she is completely competent in English, it’s been a confidence-booster to my husband and I to put our college German skills to the test and hear her smilingly declare, “You’re not too bad.” As a real German might say, “Toll!”

Vanessa is incredibly insightful and astute at discerning other people’s emotions, intentions, strengths and hidden hurts, all in a most non-judgmental manner. This quality is probably one of the things that has made her such a successful exchange student, and a worthy, honorable representative of Crailsheim in Worthington this year.

Whether driving, dining, chatting or exploring with Vanessa, the time we’ve had with this welcome “fourth child” has been a true pleasure and has passed faster than we could have imagined.

Vanessa is far better than my childhood Barbie dolls; mature and motivated, self-confident enough to express her preferences but savvy enough to understand subtleties in relationships and family dynamics–that’s what this lovely blond German girl has proven herself to be during her time as our family’s “fourth child.”

Vanessa, you’ll always have a seat at our table, a bed in our house and a place in our hearts.

Prom, between you and me

It’s prom night in Worthington.

You know what that means: teenage girls (primarily juniors and seniors) will be bustling about, painting their nails, collecting corsages and boutonnieres at florists’ shops, making last-minute adjustments to their dresses, obsessing about what to wear during the after-prom festivities, keeping hair appointments for up-dos or curled masterpieces and helping each other with makeup.

The teenage boys? They’re sleeping in, or working, or working out, but the bulk of them have “prom” tucked firmly at the bottom of their priority lists as surely as most of the girls have it at the top of theirs.

Today’s prom dresses make those of my teen years look positively Victorian–and, truly, many of those 1980s Gunne Sax models really were imitations of 1800s fashion, brimming with lace, drawstring bodices, full skirts and other details that created an overall impression of extreme modesty.

Cut-out, peek-a-boo, sequin-glittering, thigh-high slits, décolletage-bearing–these are more descriptive style features of contemporary gowns, and it often seems many of the maidens wearing them are much more sophisticated and self-assured than were most of my 1982 peers.

That year I was a junior at Mankato West High School, and even though prom wasn’t high on my “must-do” list of experiences, I was enjoying the company of a sweet young man from cross-town rival Mankato East; attending prom was a natural development.

But whose prom to attend? Alan was a senior, so his prom was arguably more important–but then, I was the girl, so should mine come first?

We split the difference, agreeing to attend both proms on consecutive weekends–though he would sport a rented tuxedo (white!) at his prom, and his own gray suit to mine. I wore the same modestly-ruffled teal dress to both.

“Just Between You and Me” was the prom theme (his? mine? time’s erased the specifics), showcasing the 1981 hit tune from the Canadian rock group April Wine.

Local tradition dictated that high school proms took place at the Mankato State student union ballroom. Before the West prom, we dined in our finery with a group of friends at the Century Club (a restaurant that hugged the Minnesota River bank on the North Mankato side), then drove to the university and lined up outside the ballroom to promenade through a balloon-festooned arch as our names were announced.

Photos exist of these momentous events, but the ’80s were devoid of cell phones, iPads, digital cameras and other technological wonders, so most memories arise from my feelings and recollections of the nights.

Cue the fading music, the wilting flowers, the advancing spring…proms passed, along with the school year. Alan was preparing to attend Concordia College at Moorhead in the fall, so we amicably agreed to “break up,” though we remained good friends.

Cold shock flooded my brain and body as I read a letter (no email or Snapchat, kids!) from him in my college dorm room a few years later: He’d been suffering from severe headaches, returned home and was diagnosed with brain cancer. Alan withdrew from college to battle the disease, and though he wasn’t able to return to Concordia, he resumed classes at Mankato State when the cancer went into remission.

His renewed career goal was to become a hospital administrator, so after completing his undergraduate degree, he began graduate studies in health care administration at a Michigan university. Not too long afterwards, though, this left-handed tennis player and skilled percussionist began experiencing pain in his dominant arm: the cancer had returned.

Most teens attending prom tonight probably won’t be thinking about their distant futures; I know I wasn’t. Prom was just a warm and wonderful evening when we dressed up, felt special and reveled in being young.

Alan, my prom escort, died at age 24, having fought the demon of cancer with every ounce of his being. Prom wasn’t the highlight of my life, and I doubt it was of his, but it–and he–are worth remembering.

None of us knows how many special days or nights we’ll be granted on this earth, so enjoy each one that comes your way. And do your best to remain friends with your prom date, even after the occasion.

That’s something I’ll never regret.

 

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!