A trio of topics

Many things are running through my mind, so I declare full surrender to these swirling sensations and submit not one but THREE topics for consideration this week.

Prom

Saturday will mark the continuation of the decades-long prom tradition at Worthington High School. With a teenage girl in the house, it’s impossible not to catch a little of the excitement that’s in the air as students (well, the females involved, at least) finalize preparations, dinner groups and outfits for the much anticipated evening.

Those out of the prom loop for awhile might be shocked (SHOCKED!) at some of the price tags affixed to certain prom dresses. It is not unheard of for girls (yes, even local ones) to snap up gowns ranging from $300 to more than $700. Crazy sums of money, it seems, to spend for a few hours of adornment and photos on a single evening.

And then, of course, visits to salons for hair, nails and makeup may take place; corsages and boutonnieres must be obtained; garters ordered; tuxedos or suits selected; and “prom groups” organized. But it’s difficult to discourage kids from “doing it up right” in what is still seen as a teen rite of passage, with roots dating to U.S. colleges in the late 1800s.

The long-standing Worthington tradition of having Noon Kiwanis Club members (and supplemental volunteers) drive prom-goers to and from the dance remains in place, which has helped ensure a safer prom night for local students since the early 1950s.

While some high school teachers wonder if the custom of prom may be becoming outmoded, the teens participating in the 2014 Great Gatsby-themed WHS prom seem to have an abundance of enthusiasm for the occasion. Interested in catching a glimpse of the colorful spectacle? Attend the Grand March in the WHS gymnasium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, for a very modest fee.

E.T., phone home

The first year of college is nearing its close for my eldest son. His overall experiences to date have been positive, but last weekend as he did his laundry…

Ahem! First let me restate the key words: “He did his laundry.” Important to remember he’s kept on top of that, under his own steam, all year long. And any time a college student is making the effort to take care of that task, it’s good, right?

Yes, unless…he’s forgotten to remove his cell phone from his jeans pocket before starting the wash cycle.

It’s not at all like “the olden days” when his dad and I were in college. For one thing, no one had phones of their own then, so washing a phone was an utterly unthinkable occurrence. (That’s not to say those residence hall phones didn’t NEED cleansing.) But because of all the other technological marvels now surrounding us, it took little time for him to notify us of the problem.

First, he posted on Facebook that his phone was temporarily “out of commission.” Then, we received a call from him via a friend’s cell phone (easy, when all the people around you have phones!). Finally, we exchanged emails (not even resorting to Skyping, yet another contact possibility). Funny that “losing” his phone prompted almost more contact from him within a few hours than we’d had in the previous two weeks altogether!

I was quick to advocate for the “put the phone in a bag of rice” means of drying it out in hopes of restoring it to working order; he as quickly despaired that it was history and a new model was the only likely solution.

This is a “to be continued” story, but suffice to say he does not lack for methods to apprise us of his activities until cell phone death or resurrection can be fully determined.

Earth Day

With the 2013 ice storm and the long winter of 2014 both behind us, celebrating Earth Day this week–especially after a lovely Sunday when this community collectively reveled in the sun and mild air–seems natural.

Remembering the symbiotic relationship we humans have with the world we inhabit is critical. A sharp reminder of that is the non-essential watering ban under which Worthington is still operating. Let’s hope for rain and a recharge of our wells.

Please: Do your part to be kind to our world.

 

Happy talk

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s a question almost everyone hears at some point in his or her life, but not one that always receives a serious, thoughtful response. When asked of six-year-olds, answers range from astronauts to “French fry cookers” to Disney princesses to firefighters.

Sixteen-year-olds may have somewhat more realistic ideas, but shrugs and nervous blushes are also common rejoinders. Select high school and college seniors offer confident, detailed career outlines that put older folks to shame, while others exhibit downright panic and a mumbled, “No idea.”

It’s less often asked of adults at mid-life, but that doesn’t mean 40+-year-olds aren’t also considering the question.

Maybe the better inquiry is this: How happy do you want to be?

Recently, my husband and I bought ice cream cones and struck up a conversation with the shop’s proprietor. The guy was chatty, relaxed and practically giddy as he told us about the locally produced products he sold, what the best-selling flavors were and which days typically yielded the most customers. When we finally left the store, which also overflowed with varieties of candy, our cones were nearly gone but a distinct impression remained: running an ice cream/candy shop was a fun job.

“Just think,” said my husband, whose own profession in the legal field seldom yields such happy conversation. “People come in with their kids, friends or grandkids, pick out a flavor they love, indulge in a creamy confection and don’t really complain,” he marveled.

And as I interviewed a local cabinetmaker/woodworker for an article this week, I asked him what he liked best about his work.

“My favorite part is seeing the finished product and the smile on the customer’s face when it’s installed and everything looks good,” he responded, adding that his current profession was more satisfying than his previous stint as a police officer.

Yeah, most of the time, police officers show up at moments of crisis–at an accident, assault or crime scene, to issue a ticket for misbehavior or to investigate a complaint–think barking dogs, loud music, fights or neighbor disputes.

When a childhood playmate who is now a university career counselor posted a Facebook request for tips to offer graduating students in a blog she is preparing called “Backpack to Briefcase,” mostly cliched thoughts came to mind: dress professionally for interviews, seek out mentors, network, polish your resume, seek internships, etc.

Then I realized the best advice might be more fundamental: Pursue whatever profession or line of work you may be good at and interested in, but remember to consider your tolerance for strife. Do you want to spend 40+ hours weekly in a job where the people with whom you interact are always upset about something? Somebody has to do it, but it would be nice to know if airline check-in employees get much positive feedback. (Picture long lines, overweight luggage and argumentative passengers.)

Here’s a short list of other positions that may not have the highest “happiness quotient:” school principals, driving test administrators, jailers, tax preparers, ACT/SAT test proctors, lawyers, social workers…and judges. I mean, who goes to court because they are ELATED about something? (Typically that is only the case with adoptions, naturalization ceremonies or marriages–and reportedly, those are far less common than divorces, disputes and sentencing hearings.)

On the literally positive side: florists (surrounded by beautiful, aromatic blooms), personal trainers/fitness instructors, massage therapists, baristas, pizza delivery people (ok, there are down sides to that, but aren’t most people thrilled to get pizza?) and physical education teachers (wear fitness gear on the job, build physical activity into your day and do your part to keep childhood obesity at bay!).

You may disagree with these observations, or could share the less obvious joys or downers of any job listed above–and certainly attitude is key in making the most of any position–but when commencement season rolls around and I’m invited to jot a few words of written advice in a book or on a frame (in exchange for cake and sandwich) for the graduate to retain for future reflection, I’ve got my new catch phrase already figured out: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Hakuna matata to you, too.

Spring cleaning

One morning last week, I unexpectedly found myself with a couple unspoken-for hours before several other obligations were due to kick in. Sure, I had a Daily Globe project to complete before 11:30 a.m., with that deadline closely followed by an accompanying gig at noon and a full schedule thereafter, but somehow it seemed there would be plenty of time to “git ‘er done” AND run some necessary errands beforehand, as well.

A welcome splash of sunshine that raised spirits and planted the hope of spring unfortunately also illuminated the pantry as I passed by, and my eye rested on the scattered debris along the floor and the haphazard arrangement of shelved items.

“It’ll take just a second to sweep,” I thought, grabbing broom and dustpan.

But once in the pantry, I started straightening columns of canned goods, and, catching a glimpse of a long past “Best By” date on a cake mix package, a minor purge and reorganization began.

During that process, I stumbled over a box, which surprisingly contained….an espresso maker, received as a wedding gift nearly 25 years ago. The appliance had, until our recent house move, waited uncomplainingly on a dusty shelf in our basement–because we’d rarely had time for leisurely cups of specialty coffee drinks idly sipped over newspapers on sleepy Saturday mornings for, oh, the past 19.5 years (certainly only a coincidence that that was when we became parents).

Rescuing the forlorn appliance and placing it in a kitchen cupboard where it was more likely to gain attention at least annually, I returned to the pantry to sweep when…my eye again strayed, this time to the laundry area, where I spotted a bottle of bleach sitting outside the cabinet.

“You know, tossing a little of that in the toilets would be a good idea,” I muttered, grabbing the bleach and heading for the stairs.

But as I walked through the kitchen, I stopped at the refrigerator for a drink of water–and saw a previously ignored puddle of spilled juice beneath the vegetable bin that suddenly seemed like a major issue.

Pulling out the bin, I culled a few stalks of limp, molding celery from the colorful array of food, along with a slowly spoiling onion, a few rotten radishes and–what’s this? A plastic bag of kale, which was about to take a turn for the worse!

Possessing good intentions to eat nutritiously, I had purchased the kale knowing it was key for so many reasons–Vitamins A, C, K, B6, calcium, fiber, manganese, folate and more–although only a portion of the leafy green stuff had made its way into our salads and soups.

“Ah, kale chips!” came the brainstorm, so a quick stop at the computer to retrieve a recipe next ensued.

After chopping the kale, drizzling it with olive oil and sprinkling it with seasoning, I slid the tray in the oven, grabbed the bleach and climbed the stairs.

Horrors! The bathroom used most frequently by the two teenagers needed more attention than I had guessed, so I dumped some bleach in the toilet and began wiping down the mirror, sink and counter when…

Splat! A precariously placed hairdryer, still connected to the outlet, plunged into the bleach-laced toilet water. Reactively, I grabbed the hairdryer with a bare hand and dropped it, dripping, into the sink.

Realizing I had narrowly escaped electrocution, I unplugged the hairdryer before shaking out more of the water and laying it on the counter to dry.

“Um, what’s that smell?” I asked after spending several more minutes upstairs.

The kale! How could I forget? I dashed downstairs to the kitchen, flung open the oven door–and discovered that all but a few of the kale leaves were black, shrunken ashes, hardly suitable for human consumption except under the most desperate of circumstances. And the odor! Smellier than Shrek’s swamp, and permeating every corner of the house.

Time to….pop some brownies in the oven (after checking for the box with the nearest expiration date) to mask the putrid scent of burned kale.

If you give a mouse a cookie (or a distractible woman two extra hours), what unfolds might be shocking. Know this: if you need some kale, I’m your gale…er, gal.

 

Sticks on the ice

If there were a “Hockey Mom of the Year” award, there is no question I would never be nominated for it.

When it comes to attendance at games, mine might be rated a B-. I’ve never signed up to be the “Team Parent,” even though my youngest son has been a hockey player for–oh, 10 years now. (And my older son, a college freshman, announced in mid-November he was going out for club hockey at school, after having played for three years in his elementary days. A hockey mom of TWO?) Not once have I been the penalty box monitor, scoreboard operator or game announcer–though my hockey aficionado husband has done all of the above, along with coaching, and then some.

I’ve put in my fair share of time in the arena’s concession stand, to be sure, but my enthusiasm for sweaty, malodorous hockey gear (and the sheer quantity of it all, lugged around in oversize bags that could easily hold a stowaway player or two), not to mention for shivering in the stands in under-heated ice arenas sometimes colder than the great Minnesota outdoors, is lacking a little punch.

Still, my relief at seeing another five-month hockey season come to its close was surprisingly moderated somewhat by my presence at the local league’s capstone, the Sunday afternoon hockey banquet. Seeing 150 kids, ages 4 to 18–still gung ho and lit up about hockey, after hours and hours spent on the ice in the preceding months–listen attentively to their coaches recount season highlights confirmed that supporting our son in his winter sport of choice was indeed worthwhile.

While most youth sports require sacrifice and volunteerism on the part of parents and players, hockey seems to take a special degree of involvement, at least in this region. Facilities without adequate and reliable funding require constant monitoring, fundraising drives and volunteers. Those who spearhead such efforts sometimes go unnoticed, although their tireless commitment to the cause is typically second to none.

In Worthington, along with the extended Ahlberg and Johnson families, one hockey clan worthy of praise is the Nickel family. On Sunday, Nickel patriarch Jim (and his equally dedicated late wife, Deb) was deservedly singled out as the recipient of the Worthington Hockey Association’s annual volunteer “Playmaker Award.”

Not only did Jim and Deb initially commit two of their three sons to the hockey program when they were youngsters (with the third soon following his brothers to the ice), they got behind it in every way possible. The award presenter mentioned their work at fundraising, at advocating for an indoor ice facility (and later, expansion and improvement of the arena their labor and co-guarantor participation helped make possible), at flooding outdoor rinks in freezing temperatures at midnight, and more.

He said the Nickels had given and given–of their time, energy, significant financial donations and offspring–and “never asked for anything in return….but quietly made a difference.”

The Nickels, active community volunteers in several other endeavors, also led by example, as evidenced by the fact that each of their three sons has returned to the Worthington area to work, raise their families and….coach hockey! Elder brothers Trevor and Chad co-coached the inaugural year of the girls U12 team, spurring them to a winning record as they went, while brother Jeff is a coach of the Mini-Mites. Nine of the 10 Nickel grandchildren are on one WHA team or another, with the 10th (who remains free of the family franchise only due to a health condition) being a frequent, happy participant in “open skate” sessions.

It was moving and inspirational to witness Jim accept this award, as the hours, days and years he and Deb so readily gave to the hockey program flashed before my eyes. Smelly skating socks and breezers aside, an activity to which good people are willing to give of themselves so selflessly must have many redeeming qualities.

Here are a few to consider: wholesome exercise, skill-building, supervised “play” that doesn’t involve personal electronic devices, and lessons in physical conditioning, teamwork and overcoming defeat.

No, I’ll never be crowned Queen of the Hockey Moms, but I can think of far worse ways for kids to spend a Minnesota winter than skating their hearts out on the ice.

 

On the market

St. Joseph is a fraud.

Oh, it’s not necessarily the earthly dad of Jesus Christ I’m talking about–it’s the statue of St. Joseph that supposedly speeds up the process of peddling real estate.

Quite recently, we sealed the deal on selling our house of 16 years to a wonderful family that appears to be a perfect fit for the historic property. Certainly we enjoyed and cherished the house’s many distinctive features–built-in bookcases, sliding glass pocket and French doors, hardwood floors, a brick-framed fireplace, dark and bountiful woodwork, plenteous attic space and a spacious yard, to name a few–during the time we called it home.

But every house has its quirks, and not everyone is capable of–or interested in–appreciating the charms of a nearly 100-year-old structure.

So after a few months of regular showings, which required rapid and sometimes panicky pick-up periods, followed by breathless departures en route to killing time until receiving the “all clear” from the realtor/tour guide, we began wondering if there was something more we should be doing to move the process along.

Having already expended considerable energy and income on various fix-ups in the preceding months, we were at a loss as to what further steps to take.

Then, a buttoned-down banker with a kind but normally serious disposition learned of our plight and posed this puzzling question: “Have you tried St. Joseph?”

Well, no, we hadn’t “tried St. Joseph,” not being Catholic nor ever having heard him mentioned in connection with real estate transactions.

The thoughtful (and devout Catholic) banker soon took it upon herself to educate us, first emailing a link to a Sept. 16, 2009, New York Times article about the phenomenon and following that up with a small gift: a “St. Joseph home sale kit,” readily available (as it turns out) for a small fee via a website dubbed “Discount Catholic Products.” The kit included a six-inch plastic statue of St. Joseph (at least as someone envisioned him), a “how-to” sheet and a prayer card.

“St. Joseph can sell your home while standing on his head,” claims information shared at realestate.aol.com.  ”If your home is languishing on the market, there are many tips that promise to help bring about a sale. But there’s only one that requires a prayer and a spade. The solution to your selling woes? Bury a St. Joseph statue in your yard, head down.”

Truthfully, I laughed out loud when the kit came. What was this, a modern day version of the Pardoner’s Tale from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales?” Did people really believe and buy (apparently!) this stuff, and how could such gimmicks make a difference? More to the point, if St. Joseph was so successful a talisman, why didn’t realtors everywhere distribute St. Joseph statues along with their cards? (Neither our realtor nor insurance agent offered one to us, even though both are committed Catholics!)

Nevertheless, there we stood, in the chill air of late October, feeling ridiculous but reading aloud from the prayer card as we carefully wrapped poor St. Joe in a plastic bag before inserting him into the cold earth of our garden.

I’m not sure if St. Joseph knew we were skeptical, or if it is just as we suspected–little plastic statues have no more bearing on how fast a house will sell than attending prom is a predictor of whether or not a person will eventually marry–but NOTHING HAPPENED. For months!

Nothing, that is, except continued showings, billings for utilities and payments on not one property but TWO, and inches and inches of snowfall that required removal on a timely basis. Winter ticked on, and we heard nothing from St. Joseph except imagined moans of pain and displeasure at his unwelcome placement beneath immovable snowdrifts atop the frigid Minnesota landscape.

Ultimately, the family with whom we’d had a contingent purchase agreement since last fall was able to remove the contingency and the property changed hands–apparently no thanks to a certain saint.

He lies there still, awaiting discovery when birds once again chirp and flowers or vegetables are planted.

Sorry to say this, but I have no plans to retrieve him.

 

Wintering the Olympics

Snow swirls past my window as I write, and I strive to remember the world without all this whiteness. Was it October? May? We’re seemingly trapped in a virtual, perpetual snow globe, where the primary distraction from snow removal is watching highly toned and trained athletes compete at the Sochi Olympics.

Their feats test the limits of our imaginations, and I mostly gape at the T.V., sometimes shaking my head in sheer disbelief at their derring-do and utter poise under the weight of so much pressure and expectation.

How does a person work up the courage to take that first jump, hurtling down a mountainside at  speeds that would get one arrested on many highways, wearing little more than two skis and a helmet as you’re suspended in the air (like Wile E. Coyote chasing Road Runner off a cliff) for impossible lengths of time, all while executing full-body twists and flips?

Or, if you are a 90-pound (but sinewy) female pairs or ice dancing skater–at what point did you develop the confidence to let your partner hurl you over his head, mid-spin, toward the unyielding ice and manage to land–still smiling–without breaking eight bones?

Maybe the real reason the Olympics only occur quadrennially is because it takes that long to talk enough people worldwide into actually attempting these sports in full, fail-worthy view of millions of spectators from India to Jamaica.

Minnesotans know a few things about winter sports of a different kind, and this season, more of the nation is getting a taste of what it takes to thrive year-round in weather conditions like ours.

Curling: In which a driver coaxes his ill-suited front-wheel drive vehicle to climb an icy, slightly inclined road by ever-so-gently pressing the accelerator, even as the dashboard registers “low traction” (no kidding!) and the speedometer slowly, slowly progresses from 10 miles per hour upward–while an SUV impatiently approaches from the rear and your 13-year-old repeatedly warns a “tardy” slip is pending if you literally can’t get it in gear to arrive at the school before the first bell rings.

Nordic combined: When lutefisk, lefse, rice pudding and krumkake appear concurrently on a buffet table at a local Lutheran church fundraiser. Extra points are granted for eating pickled herring along with the lutefisk; heavy deductions await those who only consume the sweet stuff.

Skeleton: Best described as the event in which a 30- or 40-something mother of two (or more) children reenters the workforce, diving headfirst into her career while struggling to keep her kids from constantly and surreptitiously playing repetitive games on their school-issued iPads but still managing to dry their wet outerwear, ensure their homework is completed daily and stock the refrigerator, simultaneously keeping her “game face” on at the office and accomplishing enough there to maintain steady employment. Bonus if she keeps her eyes open all the way “down the hill” (and/or functions without hourly caffeine injections).

Snowboard/snow-bored: Possibly the most challenging event of the annual Minnesota Winter Olympics, involving fending off fatigue and outrage at the constant need to remove snow from one’s driveway, sidewalks, front steps and garage floor. Recommended equipment includes heavy-duty shovels, ice scrapers/snow brushes and ideally a snowblower (best if it comes complete with a reliable operator). Thick gloves required; knit cap entirely optional.

Cross country skiing: Otherwise known as slogging across the parking lot of any retail store or shopping mall from November through April. Not recommended for those with weak thighs or erratic heart rates. The true champions push their own carts ALL THE WAY to their vehicles AND to the cart corral (rarely seen).

Bobsled: A tag-team effort in which the first one out the door starts the car and backs it onto the polished trail of packed ice, closely followed by the second “athlete” who carries out the errand items, succeeded by the lackadaisical teen glued to a trail of phone texts and capped off by the last team member (who is required to pull shut the garage door because its automation feature ceased to function when the thermometer refused to budge above -10 for four consecutive days). If you avoid going off course en route to the finish line, everyone emerges a winner.

Sochi, here we come.

Murder, mayhem and mischief in Munchkinland

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” intones the Great and Powerful Oz before his exposure as a fraud in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Indeed, often unnoticed behind the curtain are the pit orchestra members, straining to hear cues and attempting to flawlessly play our parts in cramped, dark quarters.

But being backstage–out of view yet close enough to the action to be endangered by falling set pieces–tends to lend a different perspective on a show. Having spent the better part of the past month seated at a keyboard for the Worthington High School production of “The Wizard of Oz,” hearing repeated dialogue and songs, I acquired an unusual take on that expertly executed musical.

Those who see in “Oz” the more commonly accepted themes of life’s journeys, self-discovery/empowerment, finding one’s heart’s desire, home/love at the end of the rainbow or the triumph of good over evil may not delight in my epiphany.

Allow me to suggest “The Wizard of Oz” is, at its core, a legal drama disguised as an adolescent girl’s flight of fancy.

Consider what drives Dorothy Gale’s adventures en route to the Emerald City. Dorothy’s dog, Toto, has often and without invitation trotted onto Miss Almira Gultch’s property, harassing her cat and digging up her garden. Dorothy readily admits this, but despite Gultch’s numerous requests that Dorothy’s dog cease and desist, she fails to take appropriate action to restrain her pet–who ultimately bites Gultch after she hits him with a rake (perfectly within her legal rights, though not endearing her to animal lovers).

Quick consultation with my resident legal expert (who has, perhaps, influenced my world view over the past 25 years more than I realized) determines that at least three charges could be brought against Toto’s owner based on the above scenario: dog-at-large, trespassing and “civil liability for damages resulting from the animal’s bite.” Additionally, Dorothy makes a “terroristic threat” against Gultch, saying “I’ll bite you myself!” and publicly defames Gultch by calling her a “wicked old witch.”

Gultch files an official complaint with the sheriff, who provides her with an order to dispose of the offending animal. After Toto escapes from Gultch, Dorothy flees with the dog (becoming a CHIPS candidate?) and is caught in a tornado. Upon landing in Oz, Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East–but rather than being charged with homicide, she is feted by the Munchkins as their national heroine for eliminating their enemy.

And what about Glinda, otherwise known as the Good Witch of the North? What right does she have to give Dorothy the ruby slippers, which technically belong to the decedent’s survivors–in this case, the Wicked Witch of the West (WWW)? Didn’t Dorothy, in fact, receive stolen property? And why wouldn’t the WWW be angry with Dorothy for having caused the death of her sister and stolen her inheritance?

Also included is a coroner’s inquest, convened to investigate a suspicious death. Theft occurs, too, with the Scarecrow and Dorothy stealing apples from trees in the Enchanted Forest and, later, a broomstick. Dorothy commits a second homicide when she melts the WWW with a pail of water. And what of that “I didn’t inhale” exposure to drug-laced poppies?

But it’s Gultch/WWW we perceive as the villainess, when in fact the evidence against Dorothy (a head-strong, self-focused adolescent runaway who won’t assist her aunt and uncle with farm chores or keep tabs on her dog) is piling up towards the Kansas sky.

Yes, the WWW demonstrates intent to inflict significant bodily harm when she throws a fire ball at the Scarecrow…but why does Dorothy suffer no penalties for her ill behavior? Is she too cute to be found guilty of anything other than being an irresponsible teenager, while Gultch/WWW is an unattractive, unfriendly spinster and thus becomes wholly unsympathetic in most people’s eyes?

Maybe you’re concluding I’ve spent too much time thinking behind the curtain, or knocked my noggin after slipping on ice, but despite Jessica Arnt’s lovely portrayal of Dorothy (and adorable Kokomo Schutte as Toto), that Kansas gal looks like less of a “good witch” and more of a nuisance to me.

Peace, love and understanding may lie over the rainbow; justice may prove to be a more elusive commodity in your own backyard.

Cooking up a storm

This has got to stop.

Why?

Because I’m out of food–thankfully, not in the sense that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family were (along with most of the other folks in the vicinity of DeSmet, S.D., during “The Long Winter” of 1880-81), reduced to surviving on coarse, unflavored wheat bread ground in a primitive coffee mill, baked using smoking hay twists and gnawed while gazing over frozen fingers at each other’s hollowed out cheeks and sallow skin–but I’ve nearly exhausted my entire repertoire of cold weather meal options, and we’re not even done with January yet.

If this hasn’t been classic casserole/hearty soup weather, I’ll eat it.

Comfort food has regularly been churned out in my kitchen since early December: beef stew, homemade chicken pot pie, stir-fried Hoisin chicken, pork chops, steamed brats, baked enchiladas and ricotta cheese-and-pepperoni stuffed calzones are some of the main dishes that have been quickly consumed at our house.

I’ve whipped up pots of chili, navy bean-and-ham soup, super healthy kale/butternut squash soup, chicken-and-noodles and beef barley stew.

Baked goods? You bet–countless loaves of banana bread have been produced and promptly gobbled, along with cranberry bread, chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, blueberry muffins, cheesecake and chocolate cake (at least three variations of the latter so far).

And the crockpot has been enlisted, too, for crockpot oatmeal and crockpot apple crisp, among other rib-sticking edibles.

But somehow the winter (complete with blizzards and temperatures better suited to polar bears) drones on, even as my list of menu ideas is checked over more than twice. Been there, cooked that. And yet the food continues to disappear nearly as quickly as it’s prepared, and everyone seems to be hungry all over again before the last pan has dried.

There’s a strange hollowness inside, even as we pack in the calories and begin resorting to purchased chocolate chip cookies (“made with real Ghirardelli chocolate!” the label assures) from the reliable Hy-Vee bakery.

Maybe my mistake was assuming we could cook our way out of the winter. Apparently that’s not happening.

Cooking didn’t always come easily to me, but after nearly 25 years of marriage and two decades of parenthood, one figures out how to be resourceful and feed the troops (or goes broke buying takeout). My mother and mother-in-law, each of whom more than knows her way around a kitchen, shared many laughs at my expense in the early months of my cooking adventures. Honestly, my mother may still not wholly believe I can rustle up a complete meal, and one of the most memorable (and unwelcome?) gifts I ever received was from my amused mother-in-law: a sweatshirt depicting a graphic stick-figure woman dialing for pizza delivery and captioned, “See Jane Cook.”

Those were the days, but–trust me on this–my recipe repertoire is now more extensive than most, due to trial and error, time and the gentle guidance of wise women like one of my first Worthington neighbors, the late Marge Soderholm. Marge kindly proffered recipes and secret techniques for her delicious wares (which were often generously shared) such as blueberry cream muffins, zucchini bread and sugar cookies. Mmmmmm.

Despite possessing a plethora of cookbooks, notebooks stuffed with recipes rescued from magazines or newspapers and well-stocked cupboards, the ceaseless rounds of winter weather “events” (and multiple “snow days” with housebound teens inquiring “What’s for lunch?” before 11 a.m.) have deflated my foodie imagination and made me pine for atmospheric conditions better suited to burgers and hot dogs thrown on the grill, or salads tossed together when everyone is more hot than hungry.

Sure, there may be a few additional tricks up my culinary sleeve–I haven’t made barbecues or lasagna in a while, or wild rice soup, and there’s a recipe a friend shared with me for “turkey breast in a crockpot” just last week–but when I run out of meal ideas, that’s it:

Winter is OVER.

 

Dangerous things

(WARNING: Gross generalizations and gender stereotyping may follow. Read no further if you may be offended. In addition, rest assured that all emergency personnel are appreciated and valued for the work they do, and it is no laughing matter when people suffer from real emergencies.)

Maybe I’m just easily amused, or maybe it’s due to a lack of entertainment sources readily at hand in the heart of a chill Minnesota winter, but on several occasions in recent weeks, items from the Daily Globe’s police and ambulance blotter have stopped me in my tracks on gray, bleak mornings.

While I take no great pleasure in visualizing other people’s pain and discomfort, there is definitely humor to be found in the multiple reports of: “A female was complaining of dizziness” (including, occasionally, “while shopping”).

Well, duh! What female out there hasn’t shopped until she nearly dropped, perhaps fueled only by caffeine and sugar, determined to find just the right shade of curtain or gift for little Susie or ingredients for that certain dessert, and persisted in her marketing until–she’s gripping the cart (or her oversized handbag) with sweaty palms and a sudden realization she can’t remember what she was looking for as her head starts spinning and she needs to sit down, fast, or risk falling to the ground.

Crash dieting, or an inattentiveness to one’s own nutritional needs (possibly because a woman is already juggling a job, children, a husband or boyfriend and housework), can also be causes of female “dizziness.”

Or, a man (with less appreciation for female judgment and/or common sense) might point out, why is it news at all that a woman is “dizzy”?

From a woman’s perspective, however, it may be equally unnewsworthy that a “male was unresponsive” or “a male was unable to move,” as a couple of Worthington Ambulance notations recently reported.

Ever try to get a man’s attention during the middle of a Sunday afternoon or Monday night football game? You don’t know the definition of “unresponsive male” until you’ve tried that.

Or a “male unable to move?” Hmmm, it seems I’ve witnessed that phenomenon plenty of times when a yard needs mowing, a sidewalk needs shoveling or some other unpleasant and relatively time-consuming task beckons. Calling an ambulance hardly seems necessary to remedy the problem, though–just dangle the promise of a dark European ale, special meal or extra “free” time in the ice house at the task’s end and be prepared to watch his legs move, almost as if propelled by magic.

And endless “Hi and Lois” and “Blondie” cartoon frames over the decades have addressed the cartoon wives’ ongoing efforts to enlist their evasive, “unresponsive” husbands, Hi and Dagwood, to tackle “job jar” duties rather than indulge in bowling, golf or naps.

Of course, gender stereotypes do not universally apply, whether they arrive in the form of ambulance logs or via other means. Still, consider one man who, while attending a business conference in early December (Hello! “Only 17 shopping days ’til Christmas!”), stayed four nights at a hotel a mere stone’s throw from the Mall of America and never once ventured over to that shopper’s paradise–because “There wasn’t anything I needed to buy.” (He later protested, “It’s also because I did all my shopping locally.”)

Amazing! But if turnabout is fair play, what will men think of the wife who spent more than 90 minutes in the waiting room at a large car dealership as her vehicle was being serviced–only to be asked by her husband later in the day what cars she had scouted.

“Cars?” she innocently replied. “I didn’t notice any.”

Speaking of cars, another local incident report mentioned that police were called to investigate an accident in the Burger King parking lot at 2:37 p.m. one afternoon.

“I never want to have an accident in a fast food parking lot,” shuddered my practical husband. “And it wasn’t even lunchtime.”

Dizzy females, unresponsive males and even Lady Mary of “Downton Abbey” fame can unite in approving of this popular (though unattributed) slogan: “Never do anything you wouldn’t want to explain to the paramedics.”

Think about it.

 

Baby, it’s cold outside!

Who would deny that we Minnesotans are earning our winter badges of honor with the weather we’ve tolerated these past several weeks?

No one I’ve encountered recently–and as the temperatures have plummeted, the wind has blown, the snow has drifted and the calendar has flipped to January, it seems there are fewer people on the streets with whom to commiserate when one does venture out.

But yet, it’s not as cold as it has been. An article in the Star Tribune’s Dec. 30, 2013, edition emphasized that last month’s average temperature was 13.9 degrees, a full 10.2 degrees WARMER  than the average temperature of 3.7 degrees (in Minneapolis, at least) in December 1983.

December 1983 is not a December to which even the wistful Taylor Swift might wish to return; it happens to be a time period that stands out in my memory, and not because it was overwhelmingly pleasant. Indeed, the National Weather Service cites it as being the “coldest December in modern recorded history,” and Mankato (where I was then) saw its iciest day (minus 32 for the low, minus 15 for the high) on Dec. 19.

In that month, I was home after my first semester at college. Being a freshman, I had not lined up an internship, travel opportunity or other inspirational activity, so earning money to enable the continuation of my studies was the top priority. With nearly four years of experience waitressing at the Happy Chef already under my polyester, brown-and-orange checked scarf, it seemed best to continue in that role for the weeks of my break.

But it was COLD, and trotting out to a freezing car for the two-mile drive to the “Happy Chef in the sky” day after sub-zero day (wearing nylons, rubber-soled shoes and the orange- and brown-checked uniform that was decidedly uncomfortable and unflattering) was far less delightful than running to intellectually stimulating classes across the Carleton campus had been during the three preceding months.

Bountiful snow was also part of the package. And because I happened to live relatively close to the restaurant, on one occasion the manager, desperate to find relief for other staff who had been on duty for perhaps 18 hours straight in the midst of a swirling snowstorm, called and arranged for me to catch a ride with a snow plow driver (at a spot two long, frigid blocks from my house) out to Highway169 to sling more piping hot plates of pancakes, hash browns and cheese supremes in front of the truckers and other intrepid travelers who continued to find their way to the Chef (even while most of the area seemed to be otherwise shut down due to nearly impassable road conditions).

When even the local police and state troopers, who were otherwise frequent customers, failed to darken the doors, you knew that, baby, it was REALLY cold outside.

While I don’t have a confirmed record of this, December 1983 may have also been when the Happy Chef management housed me and a couple other waitresses overnight at the adjacent motel, in order to keep us close at hand in case the highway was closed and other workers couldn’t make it to their shifts.

Have I mentioned that I was receiving $2.11 per hour (plus tips!) for these efforts? My brain must have been frozen, too.

By the standard of December 1983, December 2013 certainly gains favor in my eyes. And my experiences with the cold–and at the Happy Chef–don’t even begin to count as hardships, especially when I consider local friends who are striving to keep barns warm for 2,400 baby pigs, or law enforcement officers, fire fighters, nurses, snow plow drivers and other “essential employees” who remain on duty, or those who may lack reliable transportation to carry them to their jobs.

It’s a good thing my great-great grandparents were the ones huddled in a sod house on 160 acres about six miles northeast of Brewster in 1874, because the claim would never have been “proved up” if I were the one who had to maintain residency there through a cold, dark, snowy winter. Indoor plumbing, electric heat, remotely started vehicles and hot water are improvements and modern conveniences many of us appreciate on a daily basis.

Stay safe, stay warm, stay sane–and when words fail you, just say, “Brrrrrrrr.”

Remember: It could be colder.