Friday, June 25, 2010

Home and Away

Yesterday marked two weeks since I've become a "permanent" resident of Nebraska. Maybe permanent isn't the right word, because I haven't yet gotten my new driver's license or registered to vote. Or because ever since I left Minnesota after college, I've never felt a part of the places I've lived. I've always felt like my life was in pseudo-transit, just waiting for the day when my address labels would read Minnesota again. It's a weird feeling. And now I'm back to actually being a student again. I'm still working out how I'm supposed to feel about all of this.

The good news is that where I am is actually on the way to other places (unlike BG) and this means that my family can actually come visit me--rather than it just being easier for me to visit them. My mother has already been down here--to help me find a place to live--and my parents just came through here en route to Colorado. My sister, K2, was going to bring C. down here over the 4th, but those plans have changed. But we're looking to make plans for later in the summer. This is good. Very good.

But I've been thinking about what it means to be home and what it means to be away. This morning, I woke up to a very cranky Maeve at 5:00, who was hungry. In the last two weeks, the cats have seemed to follow the same eating and sleeping schedule as their cousin C: up early, eat, then have a morning nap. Afternoon naps for everybody. This morning, Maeve wasn't having any of it. At least Galway is silent when he's upset. So I picked her up and she promptly wrapped her paws around my neck, like a kid and squawked out her problems. I petted for a while, then put her down, and we all got some more sleep. It's been tough to get used to this studio, not just me, but the cats as well. They're not used to having so few spaces to escape from each other. But thankfully, the addition of the brown loveseat has been great--the loss of floorspace actually means more space for the cats to be away from each other. Which makes me happy.

Things are mostly unpacked and put away here, as much as they will be, since I'm moving to a one-bedroom in August. This morning, I made my first pot of tea here and this seemed to signal Home to me, more than anything yet so far. I'm using my Belleek teapot (bought to commemorate C's birth in February), filled with Rose Earl Grey, and sipped out of the teacup the AMR got me as a going-away present. I've been using my green travel mug for my tea needs since I got here and in hindsight, that seem to signal some sort of fugue state, rather than permanence. I could have had the same effect with any of my teapots, any of my cups, but there's a lot to be said for what teapots and cups represent. Sit down, slow down, enjoy the morning sunshine.

There's other inherent memory here, surrounding me in these 300 sq ft. I'm typing this on my grandfather's desk, which he bought in 1953 when he and my grandmother and toddler mother moved to the Cities for my grandfather to start his master's degree in agricultural economics. I'm hoping it will also bring me the same brainy luck. The couch that Galway is currently stretched out on (not in his bed, the twerp) belongs to my sister K3, who has generously loaned it to me, after years of memories in her possession. I built this footstool out of black walnut with a grandpa-type friend when I was in high school. There's the tea cabinet. My recipe box. And more. There are memories here. I'm not reinventing the wheel. The memories stay in these things, whether or not I personally know what the memories are.

There's history in my pots and cups, which is why they're so important to me. They're not simply caffeine delivery devices. This particular combination brings together my Minnesota family, thoughts of K2, M, and C as they returned from the East Coast from M's family reunion last night (and stuck on the tarmac in Philadelphia for 2+ hours with a four-month-old baby), and it reminds me of my life and friends in BG, because this cup was a gift from a dear friend. A cup I was sipping from as I Skyped with my adopted BG mom, D.

Nebraska may not be home yet, but home is what you make of it. I'm not starting my memories from scratch and that makes me feel like I'm home.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Tragedy of Going Nowhere

My parents are in the final-planning stages of their major camping trip for the summer and I'm so jealous I can hardly see straight. That might also be the result of inefficient caffeine consumption on my part, but maybe not. Because of my change in geographical and financial circumstances, the Scamp is in their driveway, not in mine, and except for a weekend in Minneapolis in July (for C's baptism), the trip from BG to Lincoln will be all I get to call Scamping this summer. It's tragic, in that overly-dramatic way that early mornings without caffeine can be. Especially when one wakes to thunder (good) and the unmistakable noise of Maeve waking up on the Evil side of the bed. Maybe the cats are getting stir crazy in 300 sq ft as well.

The parents are headed to Colorado for two weeks and then to California, to visit the California Babines. All of us were out in CA last summer (with K2 just eight weeks pregnant with C), but it doesn't work out for us to go this year. Maybe next year. But maybe next year, we can convince some of the California Babines to meet us halfway, say in Colorado or in Yellowstone. Because of time constraints, we've flown out there in the last few years, rather than drive, but I have to say that the thought of me driving through San Francisco traffic (with or without the Scamp) gives me hives.

In 2003, right after I graduated with my MFA from Eastern Washington University, my parents came out for the ceremony and then we caravanned to Yellowstone, where we met up with one of my dad's brothers and his family and my dad's sister and her family. We had a great time (my episode with the Buck Knife notwithstanding). But I'd like to repeat the experience, with more of the California Babines. I've got a good mental image of a plethora of Babine campers (and the Scamp!), different family groups sitting in lawn chairs around campfires, babies (of which there are many now) getting passed around to any open arms. Stories being told, memories being made that will be stories for the next time.

I don't know if this will happen. But part of the fun of camping is planning. Dreaming. Even if things never materialize, planning is all about faith. Faith that you'll get out of the driveway--and that you'll return. It's how I'm coping with not getting to camp this summer. I'm planning for three years from now, when I hope to have enough money to fund my dissertation trip to Nova Scotia. I'm planning for next summer, when I hope to have the time and resources to spend at least a couple of nights up on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Planning and dreaming will just have to keep me company until I can have my Scamp back in my own driveway, which is a great many years away.

So I will email my parents, tell them not to forget the tea (which they forgot on their practice run to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago), remind them of what they should be bringing for me (since they're picking up I-80 here), and try not to be insanely jealous as they go about their own camper tasks to spend the night here. But the thunder is rumbling outside my window right now, the sky darkening at 10:41, and I'm trying not to think about what I would be doing in the Scamp in such weather.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Stormy Weather

When I moved to BG in 2003, I lived in a hotel for about two weeks before I could move into my apartment (thanks to screw-ups with the moving company) and for those two weeks, the tornado siren went off nearly every day. Unfortunately, this resulted in some complacence among my my fellow hotelers and myself, as we would peek outside our doors to see if we could see the tornado once the sirens went off. There was once that a few of us stood in the parking lot, watching a funnel cloud descend and go back up. And now that I've moved from BG, storms seem to be bidding their own farewell: a day or two after I moved, an F4 tornado ripped through Wood County, killing twelve people and destroying more than simple property. It takes away a little bit of the excitement for red on the radar, as it should. I've got memories of other tornadoes: the tornado that ripped apart Gustavus Adolphus College when I was a freshman at Concordia. I went down to help clean up. There is nothing in the world like the aftermath of a tornado. No destruction can even come close. It's fast, it comes out of nowhere, and there's absolutely no rhyme or reason to what gets broken, what gets saved, and who loses their lives.

Since I've moved, the storms have followed. For the last week, we've had thunderstorms here every night, but I don't really consider them storms, since they haven't woken me up. Last night, the storm hit before I went to bed and it was a delightful little mix of thunder and lightning, nothing for me to get too excited about--but no, that's not true either. I get excited about storms of any type. And then I have a moment of "I should not be excited for these storms--look what they've done!" and I'm so conflicted about whether or not I should be excited that it makes me dizzy.

But my father called last night, as he and my mother were spending the night at my grandparents' Cabin, which doesn't have TV or internet, and he wanted to know what the radar looked like. The whip of the tail that Nebraska was getting, the head of it was up in Minot and curled around nearly to Duluth, through MInneapolis, and down to Nebraska and Kansas. My parents had already seen their storm of the night and wouldn't get anymore, so the radar said. I hung up with him and hopped on Facebook, where my friend J,, with whom I worked at camp for several years in college, made a mention of the resort she was staying at said they could go for shelter into a conference room (where there were large windows...) and she laughed. We traded memories of bad weather at camp, getting all the campers into the basement in the middle of the night, wondering if we should go get them from campouts, calling the National Weather Service in Grand Forks and being told to call Duluth and Duluth telling us to call Grand Forks (where we were was about where the satellites overlapped), and many more.

I remember, another summer, another camp, sitting with C., on the steps outside the dining hall, with the campers and counselors safely in the basement. We noted the difference in thunder: rumbles that sound like marbles on a hardwood floor, bass drum booms, and cracks that sound like the sky is being cracked like an egg. With the phone in hand, the National Weather Service on speed dial, we would watch the clouds rotate, rating the thunder on a scale of 1-10, often heckling, “Come on, God, just one funnel cloud—is that too much to ask?” We didn’t want a tornado. We’d seen the ravages they’d left behind. But we wanted to see, really see, the power held in that water and those clouds. There's only been one time where I've gone myself into the bathroom, tossed the cats in there with other important things, and this was a storm when H. was two weeks old and LC was alone in the house with her newborn baby. That was a touchy situation. Memorable.

This morning I woke up, checked CNN as I always do, and there was an article about last night's storms: three killed in MN. Tornadoes touch down in Wadena and Albert Lea. I called my father to get the scoop and he said that their friends' daughter and granddaughter were in the path of the tornado and their four-plex was flattened. They'd basically lost everything they had, but they were okay.

The humility of storms is something I'll never get used to. It's hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement of the thunder and the lightning, the energy in the air, because that energy is really there and it has to go somewhere. There's something wonderful--if only wonderful in a terrible way--about seeing the power of nature, that no matter how hard we try, we can never control it. But then I think of the storms in Wood County and the lives affected there, the lives affected in Wadena and Albert Lea, and it's also hard not to feel guilty about remembering the excitement I feel every time the radar turns red.

It's a tough thing, but it also brings to mind the power of memory. Storms--no matter how destructive they are--always remind me of what's really important and that memory is more valuable than rooms full of stuff. My two favorite storms of all times remind me of that. The first Best Storm award goes to the storm at Glendive, Montana, when we were camping west once. We were in our 1972 Starcraft pop-up and the storm was incredible. Lightning, thunder, rain. The campground's flagpole was within view of our camper and we watched it whip one direction for a while, then the wind would switch and it would whip in the other direction. The best part of the night was not that Dad drove us the short distance from the camper to the bathroom in the Suburban because the water was too deep (and the storm, naturally, dangerous to walk in), but that our father, who loathes board games and things like that, actually played games with us as the storm raged. We set the dinette up into a table and the five of us had a great time, playing whatever it is we played. In the morning, it was like nothing had ever happened. The ground had soaked up all that rain and the sky was as clear and blue as we'd ever seen it. Our camping neighbors would tell us they wondered about us, in our pop-up, when they were nervous in their Class A's, but it never occurred to us kids to be afraid.

The second best storm of all time happened on another trip, this one in 1994, east to Washington, DC. The heat of the city was tremendous and we were Minnesotans, used to excessive heat and humidity. A hundred degrees, a hundred percent humidity. The heat was enough to induce nausea when we moved from the outside to the air-conditioning of the museums. It was also the only time in my memory that our mother bought juice packs--to keep us hydrated. But on this day, we went to see George Washington's house at Mount Vernon. It didn't look like a storm when we got there, but once we got into the house and started touring, the clouds gathered. I remember standing on the main floor, where the windows faced the river, and it was at that point that the storm lost its temper. One minute we could see the river through the drops and in the next minute we couldn't. It took several very large men, pressing against that wind, to get the doors closed--and even then, the water was coming underneath the door. When you're a kid, it doesn't occur to you to be afraid unless other people around you are afraid, and nobody was. The storm didn't last long, but it was potent enough to make it onto my list.

I haven't had many storms in my Scamp, just the one in Lincoln a month ago with my mother, where I discovered that the windows still leaked--and it's really loud in there, the rain on the roof. But part of me still is looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Road Construction Game

When my family went camping when my sisters and I were young, our parents had contests between themselves who could hit the most road construction (extra points were added for delays) and who could drive the steepest grade. These were not skill-based contests, but rather they were based on who was driving at the time. I don't remember who holds the road construction points record (I don't actually think there were literal points awarded), but Dad holds the grade record (20% grade, Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota). But as I'm now the driver (I don't trust the cats behind the wheel), I think there should definitely be points.

The Rules: Each day is its own. Points accumulate over a day's time and are recorded to be set against the next days' points. Points can be awarded to both the driver or the passenger(s), depending on the item. A notebook for the running totals, kept in the console or glovebox, prevents cheating.

The Points:

1. "Road Work Ahead" sign: 5 points.

2. Speed limit decrease: add 5 points for each 10 mph. (From 65 mph to 35 mph = 15 points)

3. Multiply #2 by 2 if the vehicle comes to a complete stop, due to traffic or construction. (To that total, multiply by 2, again, for every ten minutes the vehicle stays stopped.)

4. Three lanes of traffic (or more) narrow to one lane: 10 points

5. Lanes narrow to two-way traffic: 20 points.

6. Lanes narrow to one lane, with flagger: 50 points.

7. Crossing to other side of the freeway: 30 points. (Add 10 points if the other side of the freeway is torn up to dirt.)

8. For each cop car you see with its lights on: 5 points.

9. For each cop car you see withOUT its lights on: 15 points.

10. Get caught speeding: lose all points, subtract 100 points.

11. For difficult weather (must be mutually agreed upon by driver and passengers; could be rain, wind, etc): add 10 points.

12. If towing something: add 10 points.

More will be added to this game, as I think of things.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fork in the Road...Or is it A Fork and The Road?

There's absolutely no way I can be completely objective about what I'm going to write, so I'm not even going to try. Food on the road is important, not only just while you're in the car (where I survive on granola and whatever tea I've brewed in my cup), but for when you get to your destination--or while you're en route. I've spent the last two weeks up north with my parents, seeing my grandmother, hanging out with my sisters, brother-in-law, and my amazingly awesome niece, C., who turns four months old on Saturday (though her father has forbidden anybody to round up her age, so she's still three months old). I can't stand it. I just adore this kid.

While I was down in Minneapolis with C. and her entourage, I was privy to M. teaching his daughter one of the important tenets of culinary wisdom in his world. We had brats on the grill (for us carnivores) and grilled veggies for K2 and K3. And as C. was sitting on K2's lap, M. held up the mustard bottle so C. could focus on it. "Only mustard goes on tubular meat." This is not-negotiable. Ketchup never goes on tubular meat. (I found out later that this is from the show Ed.) I flagrantly ignored that, since I like ketchup on my tubular meat. Apparently, though, chili is okay, as a text message to M. would reveal, though I wonder how he feels about things like sauerkraut and relish. Hm. But the moral of the story is that some things are sacred.

Since I was only home for a couple of weeks, I wanted to hit all the hot spots of dining on the Hwy 34 corridor. I couldn't get to all of them, but I made a good dent. I will start my love-fest in Detroit Lakes, with dinner at Speakeasy. (There's one in Moorhead as well.) It's mainly Italian in cuisine, but it doesn't feel like it needs to limit itself if it wants to do something else. The decor is pure 1920s speakeasy, all dark reds and blacks and Art Deco prints on the walls. My mother had their Blackened Chicken Rigatoni, which I would adore too, if it didn't have red peppers in it (which cause me migraines, so I avoid them). On this particular occasion, my father decided to have a Caesar salad, with chicken, and sun-dried tomatoes. I honored my Rut. I have a huge rut when it comes to this place: their beef stroganoff is to die for. Sometimes I consider ordering something else (like their calzones, which are amazing--they're not listed on the dinner menu (they're on the lunch menu), but you can still get them)--but what's the point of having a rut if you don't continue with it? The meal is served with a small fresh loaf of bread, with stunning garlic butter. I usually get the salad to go with my stroganoff, but this time, I was craving their minestrone (which was spelled Minnestrone on the chalkboard out front...Minnesota Minestrone, maybe?). Their minestrone is richly flavored, full of vegetables, potatoes, zucchini, and beef. The service has always been attentive and the servers I've encountered in the recent past all have personality, rather than the robots you see at other places. I always get a kick out of them. Maybe it's the hats. But the meal we had was stupendous, as expected, and I can hardly wait until I'm home again and I can have some more stroganoff.

Then we head east to Dorset, which is between Park Rapids and Nevis. This is the Restaurant Capital of the World and it's got the most restaurants per capita of anywhere, or so I've heard. It's also easy to tell the tourists from the locals here, because the name is pronounced DOR-sett. FYI. Dorset is also conveniently set on the Heartland Trail, which is the first Rails to Trails bike trail in Minnesota, and it's a really great bike trail that goes from Walker to Park Rapids. I grew up three blocks from it, back in the day. I've got some great memories of it. But there's so much to eat in Dorset, from ice cream at the Dorset House (with its old-fashioned soda fountain, where my favorite is their ice cream sodas)--but the Dorset House really is another complete story for another time. The General Store has really amazing stuffed French toast. I haven't been to La Pasta, but I hear it's good. The Dorset Cafe has famous broasted chicken. And then there's Companeros. The owners, Rick and Laura, used to babysit me when we lived in Laporte, so they've known my parents a long time. If you wan't seriously authentic Mexican food, this isn't the place. But the food here is so wonderful that I don't even care. Some people don't like their salsa--I really do. I usually mix a little of what they call Hot into the Mild and that hits it right for me. Dad always asks them to bring out the Really Hot stuff. If you don't get a strawberry margarita, you're missing one of the great wonders of the world. I like them non-alcoholic. So, so good. And my rut here is the chimichanga. Beef. With beans and rice. For me, this is There Is A God kind of food. I've learned, though, that the portions are generous enough that I ask for a to-go box right away, I cut my chimi down the middle, and I put half of it away so I don't gorge myself. But it's tough. Otherwise, I won't have room for dessert. And their fried ice cream--or their Mudballs--are so good that you don't want to make yourself uncomfortable before you get to them. That defeats the purpose. The fried ice cream is not terribly unlike that found elsewhere in terms of composition and preparation, but the Mudballs...those are a scoop of ice cream, rolled in Oreos, and then covered in strawberries. When we went--it was my mother, father, and grandmother--we got one fried ice cream and one Mudball to share between the four of us and that was exactly enough food. Here's the thing about service at Companeros. The waitresses are not hired as waitresses. Young to old, they get hired on as bus-people and they have to work their way up. You don't immediately start as a waitress. This means that the waitstaff knows this restaurant like the back of their hands, because they've done everything from refill chip baskets to learning the ins and outs of the menu to even simple things like learning the layout of the restaurant and kitchen. The staff here is superior. They do not take credit cards, so know that before you go.

And the third of my dining triumvirate this trip was last night. Again, it was Mom, Dad, and Gram, and we went to the Brauhaus, which is on Hwy 34 between Nevis and Akeley. I used to babysit for the owners' kids, once upon a time. Gabi is from Germany, so they're seriously authentic. See why I have no illusions towards objectivity? (To continue that theme, we ran into my mother's second grade teacher and a baby shower for the local principal, which included lots of people we knew, including one of my English teachers.) My parents' rut is for the Euro-Goulash, so that's what they got; Gram got the Rinderbraten (roast beef), which was so tender it screamed in fear at the motion of her fork, and I shared Mom's goulash. But usually my rut is just to get the spaetzle, the red cabbage, and a hard roll. This might be, with out much doubt, my favorite food in the whole world. The spaetzle is just the right consistency, the beef gravy is rich and not too salty, the red cabbage shredded to a good size for eating (and won't slop you in the chin) with the right balance of sweet and tangy. Gram is completely in love with their carrots, which are also drool-worthy, for good reason. I didn't try Gram's roast beef, but the goulash was its perfect peppery self without being to peppery. I'm not a big fan of pepper, but this is just enough to wake your tastebuds up, in case they weren't paying attention. Their desserts are also really great, though I haven't had dessert there in a long time. The staff is dressed in classic German outfits and is spot-on. They also do not accept credit cards.

There are a lot of dining options, should you find yourself in Northern Minnesota. Which, of course, you should.