Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving for Three

Due to a variety of extenuating circumstances, good, bad and otherwise, the size of our family left in the great Northwoods for our annual Thanksgiving feast was reduced quite spectacularly this year. I have had a variety of Thanksgiving experiences, large and small, but this one still fit into the “new” category.

My father, my uncle and I were three bachelor(ette)s left alone for the holidays. I had such an intense week of things running up to the holiday that I had seriously threatened that, if left to me (and obviously, it was going to be left to me), Thanksgiving dinner was going to consist of either 1) macaroni and cheese and Spam, or 2) Chinese take-out.

My mother, calling from far, far away admonished me to at least take them out to a restaurant in town that does Thanksgiving meals. That sounded like I would actually have to take a shower and brush my hair, which really seemed more work than getting some food on a table at home. I suppose there was the option of picking up an actual Thanksgiving meal from said restaurant, but if there’s one thing I’m not crazy about, it’s a stranger’s version of a Thanksgiving dinner on my plate, even when all of the necessary pieces are there.

Miraculously, the day before Thanksgiving (on what was technically a “day off” for me), I suddenly got motivated. (Granted this motivation was in large part due to a stupidly forgotten work task on my part that required me driving the 20 miles in to work to do one measly thing.) I made a mental list (a written one would have been too much like committing to a course of action) and drove to a store and grabbed shopping cart.

The meat section had me flummoxed for a while. I don’t cook meat (I eat it, I just don't cook it). I’ve really never done more than a chicken breast. There would only be three of us. Even a small turkey would be huge...a turkey breast left no opportunity for dark meat...leftovers are good...but...thawing, cleaning, cooking, meh. Not appealing.

Then I saw the little Cornish game hens. Two for $6. One each. Decision made. Done.

So, Thanksgiving morning I made my presence known in my parents’ kitchen. We cleaned up from my father’s bachelor week, and I set to work making something happen. And, amazingly, it did.

Nothing fancy. I didn’t go out of my way to spice up the recipes with anything I wouldn’t normally use. But there were Cornish hens (that actually turned out pretty well for my first attempt at really cooking meat), mashed potatoes (with skins left on and not whipped, thank you very much), stuffing (okay, I cheated and go pre-seasoned bread crumbs), cranberry sauce (that at least was homemade with local cranberries and my own recipe), homemade bread (well, a half-loaf leftover from the weekend before), apple pie (that mom made and left in the freezer, figuring if we had nothing else, we’d have that), and two pumpkin pies (I just couldn’t let the holiday go without making a pumpkin pie, especially when it’s so easy). Oh, and green beans and assorted raw veggies.

And fortunately I didn’t have too critical of an audience to work with. The three of us would’ve eaten raccoon, probably. My one big slip was timing in getting everything on the table - thought I had it down, but then decided the chickens needed more time. Ah, well.

So, my first solo venture in the kitchen at Thanksgiving was not discouraging. Still not thrilled about the idea of taking on a turkey some day, but we people will generally just eat, even if it’s not gourmet and half burnt. There’s something to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Week in 42 Words

Sunday: To play is to pray twice.

Monday: Tested remedies for accidental meeting overdose.

Tuesday: To sleep, perchance to dream of...

Wednesday: Murphy’s greatest invention was the computer.

Thursday: A stop at the pasty shop.

Friday: To progress does not imply progress.

Saturday: Snow, rain and butternut squash soup.

Monday, November 01, 2010

77 hours

In honor of the near-77 hours I was without power this week, I'm going to do a seven-quick-takes Monday to get things rolling again.

1. Obviously #1 is the fact that we're celebrating being back on the grid. The massive windstorm from Tuesday and Wednesday went out with a whimper by Friday. After that it was hard to believe it had ever been windy at all. I hauled all of the recently-cooked meals out of my freezers and found room for everything in my parents' deep freeze on Thursday. Then I found room for me, and when my sister and her boyfriend flew in for my cousin's wedding this weekend, we found room for all of us. No worse than Thanksgiving. But I was still glad when Wisconsin Public Service called and texted me on Saturday morning to tell me my connection to the civilized world had been restored.

2. Storms are good for the adrenaline. And they alter circumstances and it's interesting to see how one responds to them and to their consequences. One thing I've learned about myself is that I respond quickly to a sudden change in events and can move through the moment efficiently and effectively. However, once derailed from my original track, it takes me a long time to return to what was "normal" before. Makes going back to regular work rather challenging.

3. The storms were followed by more excitement this weekend. My cousin Erin got married, and Sarah and her boyfriend Scott flew home. I haven't seen them together since they left for California, and it was fun having them around again. When it rains, it pours: Erin's wedding, Scott's birthday and Halloween. Mom cooked up another storm in the kitchen (really, with all of us in there it was ready to be declared a Federal disaster zone, but whether it had been an earthquake or tornado or both is still being debated), and produced two massive lasagnas, garlic bread, huge salads, a carrot cake, two apple pies, and pumpkin ice cream. And whatever candy we raided from the trick-or-treaters' dish. Sarah produced enough friends to help eat it all. High moment from the Halloween invaders:

Scott, dressed as a "Extreme Weather Golfer" greets a young Harry Potter at the door. He then informs Harry Potter that he is actually the Dark Lord in disguise. He insists Harry must tell him a riddle to win his candy. Harry does, and Scott-Dark-Lord doesn't know the answer. Young Harry shouts the answer and, "I vanquished the Dark Lord!" He then kicks Scott in the shins.

4. Tomorrow I leave again for yet another training and meeting. I haven't slept a whole week in my own bed since early October. Last week I could've been in Washington, D.C., for work, but instead was displaced due to a windstorm. I'm beginning to think I should get a hotel perks card. Except now I'm not scheduled to go anywhere until January.

5. I found a wallet that I'd lost a month prior. It was in my office, which is where I thought it must be after having thoroughly dismantled my car in search of it and nobody made any charges to the credit cards. It fell down into a pile of curricula I was supposed to be reviewing. If I'd gotten around to doing my homework sooner...

6. Tomorrow is Election Day. I do have a landline, but am never home to hear it and have only received two robo messages. I share my parents' mailing address, so I don't get political junk mail. I don't watch TV. Ever. I listen to NPR. The only political advertisements I am subjected to are those being constantly covered by NPR programs. If they would just shut up about them I could live in a perfectly happy little bubble.

7. It's 30 degrees F outside and about 50 in here. Why is there still a mosquito in my house?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Great Lakes Cyclone

The Upper Midwest/Great Lakes region was/is still being hit by a storm that, according to the National Weather Service Facebook Page, had conditions of a Category 3 hurricane, and made the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald look like a breezy summers day. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but it still beat that storm by a bit.)

When they first started predicting 50 mph wind gusts, I was a little nervous. Monday night was almost eerily quiet. Maybe I was just imagining things, but the world seemed so still, perhaps because everybody was home battening down hatches. Tuesday morning dawned a bit breezy, but didn't seem that strange to me. I work at the airport, so we're used to getting some of the strongest winds across the runway. The dripping rain and muggy air was rather miserable for late October. But, not remarkable, other than some flickering lights and reports of power outages around the region.

Then Tuesday night I drove to Minocqua for band rehearsal. It was windy enough that driving was a challenge, and when I arrived I struggled to escape my car against a wall of wind. The drive home was a matter of dodging debris from fallen trees on the recently-cleared roads.

I entered my house fully prepared for the lights to not come on. But, to my surprise, the power was on and all was well. Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to fill my bathtub with reserve water just in case.

The winds increased in intensity yet again after midnight. Still, nothing unusual happened, though it was hard to sleep. I drifted off, but at 5 AM Wednesday morning was awoken by a loud thudding and a flash of light visible through my blinds. It wasn't until 7:30 AM that it was finally light enough for me to see the damage.

It was only one tree, but one very unlucky tree. It didn't just fall, and it didn't just fall across my driveway. And, it didn't just fall across my driveway and across the powerlines to my house. This carefully aimed tree managed to fall on all these things, while also taking down the power pole that brought the lines to my house, snapping it cleanly in half on its way down.

I haven't lost any other trees or suffered any other damage (yet). But, while we were lucky that it also cleanly cut the power lines so there was no danger of electrocution and we could at least get the driveway cleared, it also means that it's going to be quite a job to put in another pole and do all the rewiring.

With nearly half of the Wisconsin Public Service customers in my zip code, and some 25,000 customers across the region out of power, I doubt I'm high on their priority list. They're already predicting some homes won't have electricity restored until Friday or Saturday.

Luckily for me, I can be a refugee in my parents' home for the duration. There are many others who aren't as lucky. There's discussion of establishing shelters for those without a warm place to go. Actually, if it weren't for the shortage of water and heat, I'd actually be able to get along just fine. But our homes aren't made for living without electricity anymore. The furnace is gas, but requires an electric ignition pilot light and circulation pump. The water comes from an electric pump from the well. If it weren't for the heat, I could probably even haul my own water from home. But no heat in Wisconsin is a problem. Or at least a problem I don't want to deal with.

Requisite ironical note of all this? One of the local chambers of commerce is advertising a disaster awareness seminar. Oh, and all the area disaster response coordinators are out of the state at a training in Washington, D.C. Perfect timing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Work and Thinking About Work

Some people claim they are incapable of multi-tasking. While I may not actually be capable of multi-tasking well, I have discovered that it is impossible for me to work and think about work at the same time.

It’s like trying to gaze at the horizon and reading the map in front of you at the same time. I can think about where I am going and map out a course to get there, but if I try to do that while I am navigating city streets and looking for a particular address, I’ll only manage to get lost while not knowing where I am going.

So, when I land at a conference with 750 of my closest colleagues and friends after a week of swimming in project minutia and entrails of e-mails and meetings, it’s really hard to pull my brain out of the grassroots and climb back up to ivory watch tower.

It took me at least a day to let go of the fact that I hadn’t returned a phone call to reserve a hall for an event taking place in December and start thinking about whether that event is really the thing I should be doing at all. Rather than feeling energized by the possibilities and ideas being shared at the conference - much less contribute effective ideas to the organizational strategic planning process - I felt frustrated, overwhelmed, and irritated that there was the suggestion that all the work I was currently working on was either for naught or missing critical pieces that would make it worthwhile.

And now that I am back, it is going to take at least a day to rid myself of all those big pictures and bright-eyed dreams and focus back down to the daily steps necessary to make anything happen at all.

Next time I’m going to have to plan in advance before I start letting people steer this cargo ship I have for a brain in new directions.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stark Naked

A few weeks ago I was severely depressed. Labor Day came, and the “autumn” switch got flipped right with the calendar page. We went from highs in the 80s and even 90s to frost warnings in the course of a weekend. Fall is usually my favorite time of year, but, as I faced the certainty of my second complete winter since my return from the tropics staring my face, I was unnerved. The color of the leaves began changing, and while fall colors are my favorite palate in the world, I kept looking past them to the moment they would be gone and the world would be left bleak and grey.

Fortunately we did get our miracle of a proper Indian summer in October - a week of days with temperatures in the 70s and even some 80s after a couple of hard freezes. The colors were glorious and the sun shone brightly.

All it took was a thunderstorm followed by couple of windy days and the leaves were gone, and even the tamarack trees shed their needles in golden snow flurries. The tree branches were left shivering with embarrassment at their sudden nakedness in the shadowy October moonlight.

But then, as I drove home on a clear afternoon I looked out over an expanse of grey tree branches and I saw in them the stark beauty of winter. I had been dreading it so much that I had forgotten the clarity that comes with the season. Where summer is thick with humidity and crowded with vegetation springing up everywhere, late autumn and winter are crisp and fresh and everything pulls back and gives you room to breath. I can see through the forest now, even to see the light from my parents’ house a quarter mile away, shining through the branches. They eyes can stretch again and you can see deer passing through the woods hundreds of yards away.

Even the more monotone color wheel brings a sigh of relief after the absolute riot of color that was autumn and the intense greeness of the world of summer. The eye only needs to process one color at a time, not millions. Life suddenly seems to have become simpler, clearer, cleaner. And when there is color now, the world really means it, and focuses on making it the best color there is.

I’m still not sure my tropic-thinned blood is ready for another long winter, but my eye and my mind are ready for the clear air and bright days ahead.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I don't ask much from my footwear designers. I don't need Nike high-top, super-cushioned, inner-spring, memory foam, buckwheat-stuffed, all-terrain, 4WD water-walking running shoes. Nor do I need nine inch nail spike heeled and pointy toed black leather knee-high designer boots. Neither are going to do me any good as 1) I don't run and 2) I don't design or make a habit of walking on men.

I do, however, ask a lot of my footwear. I walk in them. Every day. In all sorts of weather. And, usually, once I find something I like, I wear them until they fall off my feet with a plaintive cry for mercy.

And, I hate shoe shopping. Detest it. Probably because I can never find what I want or need. And that's probably because so many other people love the fact that they can buy a new pair of shoes for every day of the year. Whereas my goal is the find something that I can wear every day of the year and never need another pair.

I like boots. Actually, I really like the boots I have right now. Black, real leather. Basic flat sole with just a hint of a heel. Zipper on the inside, fits snug, ankle high. Børn boots, so they are really well made. I bought them about a year ago, and have probably worn them on 320 days since. I wear them in winter, I wear them in spring, I wear them in fall. Only on the 80 and 90 degree days did I not wear them. They go with almost anything. I wear them hiking, I wore them to my job interviews. They are the perfect Common Sense Boot.

So, are you surprised to learn that Børn no longer makes said boots? And should I be surprised that there is nothing even remotely similar in the line they now offer?

If you have any doubts, go to their website and see for yourself. And then go ahead and check the other boot sellers. Remember, I'm looking for real leather, low-to-no heel, no slouch, will last at least 365 days of continuous wear in all conditions, relatively easy on-and-off, and for goodness sake, NO POINTY TOES, chains, buckles fur, or other bling.

I would pay good money for a pair of well-made boots that fit my needs.

Anybody know a really good cobbler?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Best of Seven

It's been a while since I've been on here, but it's been a fairly intense few weeks. So, I'll take seven quick glances over things as they have been.

1. Brakes are a really good thing to have on a car. They're even better to have on a car before you being a 700 mile, three city, two training road trip. Unfortunately I didn't have brakes in time for said trip, so my parents were kind enough to loan me Sir Locks-a-Lot to see me safely across the state. It is always strange to return to driving automatic transmission after having only a clutch vehicle for so long.

2. Large Event #1 is successfully marked off the calendar. I played a relatively minor role in the overall scheme of things, but it is nice to have had it come off so well nonetheless. I am always relieved when something large is over and has been a success, but also a little disappointed that so much effort culminates so quickly and then is gone. Now time to dive into preparing for upcoming Large Event #2 and Really Obnoxiously Big Large Event #3.

3. I made my live television debut last week. All two minutes of it. Whee.

4. Cranberry Fest was this weekend. Unfortunately the date coincided with a planned trip to Madison, but I still managed to lead one cranberry marsh and winery tour on Friday. This year the harvest was in full swing, so all the amazing cranberry factoids I learned for last year were far less useful this time around. In fact, I barely needed to speak at all. But the tourists were happy and bought a lot of stuff. Seems the cranberry products industry is fairly recession proof.

5. I am now learning my way around Madison, to the point that I can have a reasonable argument with the GPS as to which way is the best way to my destination. And I often win.

6. Peak color season is here. By "color" I do mean the fall colors of the trees. This is my favorite time of year, however I'm having a hard time celebrating the sudden return of cold. We're not even really being offered "crisp" - we've pretty much just been dunked into pre-winter. I am trying to come to terms with this cheerfully.

7. I just added up my vacation days. I am due a long one.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The State of Poverty

It’s Saturday morning and it’s raining. A cold, miserable, steady, dripping rain. But I am warm and snug in my bed with a solid house around me and a watertight roof over my head. My bed has plenty of warm blankets, and when I do get out of bed, I have my choice of sweatshirts and other warm clothes for the day. And when things finally do get cold enough that I would risk freezing my pets or my plumbing, all I have to do is turn a dial and the furnace will come on and fill the whole house with heat.

During moments like this, one image floats in my mind’s eye: I am back in Cao Bang, Vietnam. It is winter. I am in my four-story solid cement house, settling into bed in my flannel sheets and under a down comforter. I am warm for the first time all day from a hot shower and as long as I get into bed quickly, I won’t notice the cold draft coming in the bathroom windows. The sound of steady dripping water on the tin roofs around me permeates even the closed bedroom windows. The mist has turned to a steady damp drizzle that will keep up all night.

Most of my neighbors are tucked away in their warm homes. But as I get into my own bed, I pause and look out the window, where I can just see the large dry goods market on the next block. It is closed and gated like a ghost town. A single light burns over the south entrance, and framed in the spotlight on the pavement is a bundle of light blankets on a large square of cardboard.

The market night watchman is wrapped worm-like in a dirty quilt, huddled on the four square feet of relatively dry ground under the overhang in front of the metal gate. He does not have keys to the market, so he cannot sleep inside under the solid roof. He is paid only to sit outside on the cement. He has no mattress, no tent, not even the rickety guard house that our guards in Madagascar had with a space for a cooking fire. He will sleep wrapped in a couple of old blankets in the rain all night, earning a few Vietnamese dong to support his family whose living quarters are just a few steps up from his open-air cement at the market.


On Thursday this week I had the opportunity to participate in my first Poverty Simulation. When you enter the simulation, you become a citizen of Anytown, State of Poverty, USA (there are no illegal immigrants in this particular town, a situation that might have to be updated for future simulation programs). You are given a new name, a new age, (often a new gender) and a new family.

I was made the four-year-old son with an asthmatic three-year-old brother, of a single mom. Our father was long gone; she received $292/month in government assistance. Our monthly rent on a three room flat with broken windows was $200. Mom had no education, no skills, no child care. With $92 she somehow had to pay a $350 gas and electric bill, get to the grocery store to feed us on $75 of food stamps per week, pay $60+/month in loans for our stove, past medical bills, and clothing. She had to avoid drug runners and keep her inquisitive and bored four-year-old from wandering off, dragging the three-year-old brother along to the casino and getting caught by child protective services while she was trying to apply for non-existent jobs.

With the cards stacked so against us, you might expect our “mother” to just give up and declare the game impossible. I certainly wouldn’t have blamed her if she did.

But she didn’t. She attacked a seemingly impossible problem with grit and determination. Even with adult preschoolers whining and crying and causing problems, she knocked on “doors” looking for baby-sitters, strategized her path through the various agencies and didn’t take no for an answer. Moreover, she did everything she could to take the moral high ground and to play by the rules even when the game constantly cheated her. But it was like trying to climb Mount Everest with a toothpick and dental floss.

Three “weeks” into the simulation we hadn’t eaten for two weeks because she couldn’t get to the store for food, we still hadn’t paid our gas or electric bill, and the one success we had was when she’d remembered to ask for a receipt for her rent payment and was able to prove that we’d paid at least to keep a leaky roof over our head. We celebrated that like we’d won the lottery.

Our break came late in the third week, and our fortune rode on the bad luck of others. A single mother with a teenage son were in dire straits of getting turned out of their home because she couldn’t get work due to a disability and he had had a brush with the law early in the game. They asked to move in with us. In exchange she would provide child care for us, my mother would be free to get work and her son also landed a work permit. Then, two Luck of the Draw cards came our way offering a job to my mother and found money to our new nanny. With the extra $60 and my mother’s chance at full time work, if we pawned a few extra household items like a stereo, it seemed we might actually be able to scrape into the next month.

We rejoiced. We rejoiced over the opportunity to work, pay on a few bills and have safe, stable child care with a woman who minutes ago had been a stranger with a delinquent son.

And then our one "month" simulation ended.


If the simulation had continued, what the would have discovered was my mother’s new income would have drastically cut her eligibility for food stamps, which she would have had to go renew at the welfare office. But the time it would have taken her to go to the office, sit and wait only to find out that her benefits were being cut might have cost her her job. Without food stamps she would have had to turn to the food pantry - only to discover that they handed out vouchers to the local grocery store - another trip across town and more time spent. And the food pantry was in danger of running out of resources. And we were running out of transportation credits to get mom to work, to the store, to the welfare office. We kids didn’t even leave the house at the end of the game.

Meanwhile, our nanny’s son finally did land a work permit, and assuming he actually found a legal job (which were scarce), she would discover that his earnings would reduce their food stamp and assistance as well. Blending our families might or might not have worked. What if he’d gotten in trouble again? True, the first time hadn’t been his fault and he’d been released, but now he was a known entity in the eyes of the law. Or what if my asthmatic brother had had a health crisis? Our landlord refuse to maintain our $200/month apartment - what if that became a serious problem? Or, what if we just plain didn’t get along?

The victories were so small...and the chances to loose them were so great.


The day was extremely frustrating for all involved. After being cheated by Quick Cash or losing time and transportation credits to closed banks and utility companies, some took to hiding in their homes and hoping nobody came to check on them. Others found bill collectors knocking on their doors and were driven to the streets during the day in hopes that if nobody was at home they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Older children and teenagers wandered aimlessly because school was and out staying at home meant dealing with bill collectors.

Jobs were scarce for all, and those that did get jobs were paid $5 an hour or less.

“Budget cuts” reduced agency staff sizes by half, leaving only one case worker, a half-time banker and half-time utilities manager for the 15 families in the simulation. School was out for the summer, but there was the real possibility of not having a school teacher in the fall.

Crime was rampant, and as three and four-year-olds, we were being exposed to drugs, swindlers and gambling (the Casino kept handing out free spin tokens), had been inside the jail after wandering off on our own, and were being left in the care of strangers. Our mother was under constant stress which hardly meant a healthy, beneficial relationship for our childhood development.


I think the one thing we all walked away with was a sense of relief that, while this was a reality for many people - one in ten in our county - it was not our reality. We returned to our cars with full tanks of gas to drive back to our good paying jobs and then home to our wind-tight walls and water-tight roofs. Yes, a roof may develop a leak or a car might run out of gas, but both would be dealt with. Our job might be stressful and annoying, but it was a job. Most of us lived in our own space without being forced to share living quarters with strangers and rely on them for child care. At night we had warm beds and soft pillows to settle into. We could splurge on ice cream on occasion.

Of all the images of poverty I encountered and experienced in my six years overseas, none stay with me quite like the market night watchman outside my door on so many cold, rainy nights, doing what he needed to do to scrape by. And I love rainy Saturday mornings in my warm bed even more for it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place and "Horror"scopes

Have you ever had a no-win week? A survey of today's horoscopes perhaps shed some light on why:
Daily News astrology by Bernice Bede Osol: ARIES - Things will go much better if you're the one who is in charge of an important endeavor that includes several people. Don't let anyone who isn't truly up to the task call the shots.
Yahoo horoscope: ARIES - Avoid the temptation to tackle new projects today -- you're sure to get dragged back into something you thought was long finished. You should get moving again by tomorrow, so have patience.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bought a Mattress (reprise)

Bought A Mattress (reprise)

[Sung to the tune of "Found a Peanut"]

Bought a mattress,
Bought a mattress,
Bought a mattress last night.
Last night I bought a mattress,
I bought a mattress last night.

It was lofty,
It was sturdy,
It was cozy last night.
The mattress was lofty, sturdy, cozy,
Sturdy, cozy last night.

Couldn’t wake up,
Couldn’t wake up,
Couldn’t wake up after last night.
After last night, I couldn’t wake up,
Couldn’t wake up after last night.

Now need caffeine,
Now need caffeine,
Now need caffeine after last night.
What’s the point of a new mattress,
If I need caffeine after last night?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blueberries for Sal

It seems that I have inherited at least a piece of a the traditional female gatherer gene - I love picking berries. Always have. In fact, the book that sprang to the top of my most-often-checked-out-from-the-library list was Blueberries for Sal. Now as an adult I have a copy of it sitting on my bookshelf (and the bear part seems even more appropriate this year than ever).

So I have been simultaneously thrilled and a bit disturbed to find my favorite blueberry patch to be absolutely brimming with big, juicy berries over the last three weeks - and apparently nobody else was picking them.

This is great because, of course, all the more for me. But really, there are far more berries than I have time to pick (although I can get nearly a half-gallon milk jug-full in an hour), and I hate to see that opportunity go to waste. Mostly I’m disappointed, however, because while this patch isn’t very far from town, it’s not exactly hidden and it can’t be that well-kept of a secret, the patch remains empty even at (what I considered) prime picking times.

There is just something so fulfilling about sitting in the middle of a patch of plants heavy with big juicy berries, gathering them all together into a container, then heading home to do something wonderful with them. Or, if you’re like Sal, dropping a few into the bottom of your berry bucket, listening to them go plink, plink, plink, then eating one or two, then picking out the two at the bottom of your pail and eating those. Rest and repeat.

Unfortunately my work and life schedule and the rain schedule haven’t allowed me more than a few hours here and there, but those hours have given me blueberry smoothies and pancakes and several quarts in the refrigerator (also unfortunately, the gatherer gene hasn't found time to morph in the Sal's mother's canning gene, so extra berries will probably just wind up the freezer). Still, why isn’t anybody else out there picking?

Today I was gratified to find a few weekend pickers wander out while I was out there - I welcomed them to my patch and offered all that I could share. The easiest of the summertime bounty.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Land of Fairy Tales

Tonight my parents and I went again to our newly-restored 50 seat, one-screen movie theater in town to see the third and final (?) installment in the Shrek series. It’s really the epitome of small town summer evening, and almost a fairy tale moment itself, to walk downtown, wander into the theater, enjoy whatever movie happens to be playing in an intimate atmosphere with people you mostly know, then wander back out into the still almost-daylight, past (or into) the colorful fudge/candy/ice cream shop brimming with customers, and off back home through the twilight. Just what movie is showing doesn’t seem to matter so much as just the act of going to a movie.

On our way home we chatted idly about the movie, whether it was as good as the second, in agreement than none could beat the first, and the capture and mixing of all the fairy tales and folk stories ever told. The whole “true love’s kiss…” and creatures and stories...

Then, suddenly I remembered something that happened a few days ago, but forgotten almost as soon as it happened:

I was in my room changing and getting ready to go out for an evening (which probably meant I was changing from one pair of jeans to another). I stopped to brush my hair (a rather pointless pursuit, but I made the feeble attempt), closing the door partway to be able to see into the mirror on the back of the door. The dog was lying on his bed on the floor next to my bed on the other side of the door.

Suddenly, a movement on the wood floor caught my eye. There, hopping into my bedroom, looking for all the world like he fully intended to be there, was a frog. A rather largish sized frog for this neck of the woods, though no bullfrog.

My dog took an immediate interest, but I waved him back to his bed. The frog sort of stopped and looked up at me (I swear, he did). I was a bit astonished - it’s no simple feat for a frog to navigate himself into my house and then all the way through it to my bedroom. Much less when I was actually in there. There is the whole large porch, kitchen, dining room, a bend into the hallway and then the choice of three rooms into mine.

Anyway, there I stood, with this frog patiently waiting at my feet. Waiting for...something.

So I bent down and scooped him up. Only thing to do was to take him back outside where he belonged. Except he was having none of it. Despite the ever-inquisitive chipmunk-chasing dog-beast at my heals, this frog was determined to get out of my hands and stay in my house.

I finally scrambled him to the porch and the deck and the yard.

And then I stopped. What if?

So yes, I kissed the frog.

But, I am still me, and there is no Prince Charming come to whisk me away (or, for that matter, whisk me to stay). And the mirror on my door is still keeping (wisely) mum about just who is the fairest of them all. It knows I know I don’t stand a chance, and that I don’t really need to know the truth, anyway.

So much for fairy tale endings.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Seven Sees

It’s high time I make up for neglecting this blog. So, once again I return to the “Seven Quick Takes” as a way of figuring out just where I’ve been that I haven’t been posting here over the last several weeks…er, month.

1. What happened to June? One minute it was payday...and now it’s almost payday again. Well, I guess that’s a good thing. I did do a bit of traveling around the state this month - west, south and even further south for meetings and conferences. I’ve never been able to decide whether travel breaks up the monotony and gives me perspective and revitalizes me for more work - or just interrupts a flow of a schedule and wears me out.

2. We played our first summer band concerts this month. We did NOT suffer a complete community band FAIL (a.k.a., “bandwreck”) as many of us feared was possible. As a result, we figured we’d played pretty well. On the bigger picture, I also attended a concert in the park...and noticed the average age of those attending. Then, looking at the average age of those in the band, it makes me a little sad to wonder what community band concerts might (or might not) look like when I attain the status of a “seasoned band veteran.”

3. On the band note: I actually got to play in a dance band. Play “French” horn in a dance band. Not often a horn gets to swing - much less get to displace an extremely competent jazz trombone player and play the first trombone parts. With my apologies to him, I had a great time pretending to be first trombone (and occasionally 3rd trumpet)...even through I doubt anybody in the audience heard me, thanks to my bell facing the wrong way. Ahh, well, probably all the better for it.

4. More music (yes, I know) - it seems I’m going to have a new musical first on the 4th of July when I’ll get to play an E-flat alto upright horn, which I have not-so-affectionately dubbed the “Little Beast.” No more bells-backwards problem for the parade - I’m gonna blast those afterbeats!

5. Is it possible the 8-year drought is almost over? They were actually warning of possible flash floods last night - after a fast inch-in-an-hour on Thursday, three more inches Friday night, rain Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the ground is actually damp. Still, we’re still nowhere near to making up the nearly 40 inch rainfall deficit we’re suffering. But, now we’re stuck trying to remember how to live in a humid, tropical, unpredictable weather climate again. Gotta admit, it was kinda nice knowing your weekend plans weren’t going to get rained out. Now we’re back to the roulette wheel.

6. It seems that people actually watch TV around here. As I met people at the conference I attended last week, people repeatedly looked at me and said, “I know you. I’ve seen you on TV.” Sigh.

7. I know I’m supposed to love tourists, but I can’t help but wish I had my solitude back.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The State of Prevention

This week I spent three days at the State Prevention Conference among other “prevention” people - those of us that either are trained to work in or promote the philosophy that preventing problems is the cheapest and most certain way of solving them.

It’s a philosophy that looks good on paper and often even sells politically, but can be extremely difficult to implement. By nature, we are reactionary beings - we see a problem, and we fix it, and then wait around for the next thing to fix. Sometimes this works just fine, but generally people in this position complain that the spend all day putting out fires and never getting and “real” work done.

Second, prevention looks good on paper, but while it is very easy to report all those things that you reacted to and problems you fixed, it’s very difficult to show how many things have been prevented. How can you prove that vaccinations kept 100 kids from getting sick this year? Or, harder yet, that your anti-drunk driving education campaign prevented people from getting in accidents or killed this year? Maybe it was just a lucky year.

Still, it seems the public health approach of trying to keep people from gaining too much weight or smoking or drinking themselves to death is gaining more traction as time goes by. At least, that’s what the pro-health care reform politicians would like us to believe. The prevention community has been promised some very big money in the future by the bill - but it is still up to Congress to appropriate that in the coming years.

That, in essence, was the dynamic of this conference: people from the state capital and people from the counties and cities gathered to share ideas - and realize once again that the people gathered were not speaking the same language.

If there is one consistent thing world-wide, it is that people in the capital cities, be they national or state/provincial, suffer a disconnect from the local level. It is their role in the capitals and capitols, to set the strategic direction and policy for large numbers of people. The nature of this work - negotiations, study, diplomacy, advocacy, lobbying, and straight-up politicking - demands a certain level of academic skill. There is competition for the relatively prestigious, moving-and-shaking jobs in these capitals, so there is a depth of brainpower that can be constantly drawn upon. Plus, it is usually a place of passion and youthful energy. People often play as hard as they work, so there is usually as good an opportunity for a social life as a career. The dynamic, whether with a conservative or liberal bent (or something in between or otherwise), is usually motivated, full of ideas, and ready for change.

Often, however, just the opposite is true outside of the capital city - the further away and the more rural the area, the more extreme the difference. So while many of the representatives of these less politically driven areas sat in the audience, passions and ideas flowing from a capital city speaker were tempered with a quiet, “Yes, but…” from the crowd.

Not always, but often. It is the job of those middle-men in the prevention world to figure out how something that is being decided or developed at the strategic levels can be translated to the local level. It is the job of these prevention workers to take what is given to them and make it reality.

I always leave these conferences full of ideas. It’s also interesting to see later how many of these ideas actually manage to stick. Sometimes you do get a successful statewide (or even nationwide) campaign, such as the ban on indoor smoking in Wisconsin. But those are long term movements that must be fueled with almost constant passion of those at the state level. Motivation and renewed optimism is something we also often benefit from at these conferences. But it is also up to us, those in the middle, to make it clear when passion at the highest level isn’t going to mean a thing to the people that need to actually make the changes.

And in that lies the secret alchemy that determines success or failure of prevention.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Memories

Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day. Drop one word, and you get a very different connotation. The first is three full days away from the office, or, around here, the first busy day of summer as an endless stream of vehicles hauls boats, kayaks, camping and fishing gear, and people to the sun and lakes of the Northwoods. The second is a solemn day of remembrance, a day for color guards, cemetery decorations, patriotic music, and speeches.

This split is not limited to celebrations in the United States. I was re-reading my journal entries from Martyr’s Days spent in Madagascar. Apparently I was fortunate enough to be there for two March 29ths that were semi-attached to a weekend, so we celebrated the day as a full holiday weekend those times. The first March 29, in 2003, I had been in country for about two months and was still in training. I really had no idea what was going on. Our language and cultural trainers did their best to explain the history of the day, but it mostly translated badly as “Independence Day.” Yet, what I expected out of Independence Day wasn’t what I saw. It was a very solemn event with few organized community-wide activities like a parade or festival. My host brother left town to go to the capital to spend the day with his siblings and my host father went to the next town over to give a speech. So, three other trainees and I left town for a weekend-long bike excursion into the country.

When the next Martyr’s Day in 2004 rolled around, I had been at site in Bealanana for nearly a year. It still took my faithful sitemate, Elizabeth, to make the connection of “Martyr’s Day” to “Memorial Day.” We had just returned form our momentous 60 km hike down the mountain and back a few days before, so we didn’t do anything extraordinary for this Martyr’s Day weekend, but as volunteers only got official Malagasy holidays as days off, I know many other volunteers who did take advantage of the three full days. So, instead, we observed the solemnity of the day:

March 29, 2004 Malagasy Memorial Day. I was re-reading my journal from a year ago (2003), and somehow I’d had the impression that this was their Independence Day. Then Elizabeth said “Memorial Day,” and I realized how well that fit. We went to the ceremony at the monument in town and it was very much like the familiar U.S. celebrations: colorguard, armed contingent, officials, speakers, even a veteran. Oh, and scouts in uniform. Very patriotic. Yet very Malagasy.

The Sous-Prefet (equivalent of a County Board chairman) delayed all the proceedings as usual - so much so that even his wife walked into town ahead of his car. Then, the usual raising of the flag, national anthem, laying of wreaths, speeches. The mayor’s speech was short and to the point. Then the Sous-Prefet. Arrive late, talk long must be his motto. I was sweating from places I didn’t know I could sweat by the time he finished. But at least Elizabeth and I weren’t seated with the VIPs this time, so we didn’t have to fully pay attention…

I’m amused to read how the following part of the entry reflects on our recent down-the-mountain adventure, as one of our “guard des corps” (body guards) was the commander of the small legion of Malagasy troops (gendarme) standing in observance of Martyr’s Day.

Elizabeth and I amused ourselves by noticing the old gendarme from the walk down the mountain was the man barking orders at the troops today - and then noticing him notice us and informing the guy next to him who told the next guy and so on until the whole guard was now looking at us. We could just hear him saying, “Don’t look now, but there are the two white girls I saved from a bug.”

Always a good thing to have an in with the local military unit. (Oh, and if you don’t know the story of the bug, remind me to tell it sometime.)

Sadly, I never attended another Malagasy Memorial Day observance. The next year I had moved to Fianarantsoa, and was well warned that if we came within sight of the gathering at the monument, we would be dragged into the proceedings and seated in the V.I.P. section. We sent Dan as our sacrificial representative and the rest of us celebrated with a picnic brunch inside the compound, then, I think, took a long walk around the city in the afternoon while everybody else was busy getting drunk.

So, as I walk to the cemetery this coming Monday morning, I will remember standing in the hot sun, dust and sweat of March in Madagascar to honor Malagasy killed at Ambatomanga - and the good company I kept on those days.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A new county song

After listening to a relative's review of past relationships again this morning, there came the outline to a new potential hit song:

Lasting impression: that one-night stand.
Lasting depression: that one that broke your heart.
Lasting oppression: the one you married.


My parents will be the first to complain that my sister and I are doing very little in the way of providing them with grandchildren. My sister and I will be first to confirm the truth of that statement. (Although my sister is admittedly several steps further down the road than I - she at least has a boyfriend. The only thing showing an interest in me at the moment is our fifteen-year old cockatiel, who, upon being left alone with me for an extended period of time last winter, laid her first egg.)

And while this is a crime to some nth degree, we have at least attempted to plug that gap by providing a granddog.

My sister took the lead in this when she welcomed home a puppy that grew into a gentle giant named Cooper. Unfortunately, we lost Cooper at Labor Day last year, but several months prior we’d absorbed a foster dog named Wrangler. Wrangler, a miniature-pony sized Labradoodle with mad-scientist eyebrows, takes his role as constant companion and best friend very seriously.

Wrangler’s first and most obvious dislike is to be left alone. His devotion knows no bounds - neither window screens nor fences nor the presence of other animals will prevent him from searching out his family. More times than we’d care to count we’ve had to go track him down after he’s escaped in an attempt to find us. In fact, the very first weekend we had him was during my sister’s master’s degree hooding and graduation. We left the three dogs (Cooper, Wrangler, and my sister’s housemate’s Golden Lab, Cyrus) in their second story apartment. We returned several hours later to find a lady standing at the end of the driveway, Wrangler in tow. She said she had caught him wandering the fields of the neighboring high school, near where his former owners lived. She thought she’d seen him around my sister’s place, so she brought him back.

I ran to the house to check on the other dogs, who were still very much there. Wrangler had attempted to break out of the bathroom window, which, for a little bit of luck, was only open a crack. He eventually broke out a screen and jumped onto the porch. If he’d managed the bathroom window, it would have been a 30 foot fall to the pavement below.

Even now, earshot, and preferably eyeshot, is as much distance as he allows between us.

My new job has caused a bit of a problem for all this. Normally I leave home at 7:30 AM, and the earliest I return is 5:30 PM, but usually my schedule keeps me away until 9 or 10 at night. For a dog that needs near constant companionship, this just doesn’t work.

Enter my father. My father’s business as a seasonal plumber, especially in the spring season before Memorial Day, involves a lot of driving to a variety of northwoods cabins and time in the outdoors. Wrangler has fully absorbed his role as apprentice. He relishes “going to work.” He accompanies my father to each place, has learned to wait for instruction on what he can or can’t do at each house, and spends his time either following my father into crawl spaces or splashing in the many lakes and chasing chipmunks in the woods. He observes carefully as my father does repairs - and if it weren’t for the lack of opposable thumbs, probably would have applied for his journeyman plumber’s license by now.

This as become so much his normal gig that when I do come home to stay for weekends, more often than not I find myself chasing back through the woods to my parents’ house to find the dog. But that’s normal - grandma and grandpa’s house is always more fun that your real home.

While a granddog might not be the little human my parents are anticipating, at least my big puppy can offer many of the same benefits: entertainment without the need for the providing maintenance. And the best benefit of all: when you get tired of him, they can just send him home.

As my father said as he dropped off the dog this evening, "He's the son I never had. Thank goodness!"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bear Saga

A few days I ago I dreamed there were 15 big black bear in my yard (inside the fenced-in part). Today, I woke up to one large, three-legged black bear in the unfenced portion of my yard.

My uncle's dogs, who have been with me for the last 10 days or so, had been restless all night. Finally at 6 AM I gave in and let them out to the porch, where the take the dog-door into the large dog pen. Tumbleweed, the youngest, was more enthusiastic than usual - and I quickly saw why. There, running across the yard was a large black bear.

I was relieved I'd only let the dogs into the pen and not the open yard. But then they didn't shut up. They kept barking. I headed outside and saw that the bear wasn't in any hurry to leave the yard.

And now, four hours later, it's still not in a hurry to leave the yard.

[update: I realized out a few minutes ago that it's not a "he," it's a "she" and she must've been just biding her time with her two little cubs up a tree somewhere. I don't think it's the same sow as from the "Bear Necessities" post - I'm pretty sure that one had two front legs...I think. It is, however, the same bear that was raiding my parents' birdfeeder last summer. Anyway, you can mentally fix pronouns as you go from here]

He's hunkered down underneath some big red pines, about 50 yards from the house. I've wandered out several times, only to have him look at me, and roll over and go back to sleep. At one point I thought he might be dead. I walked across the yard to the corner of the old barn - easily within 50 feet of the bear - and he just looked at me. Then, when I got to the corner of the barn, he finally stood up and did a display of aggression by attacking the tree next to him. I backed off.

That's also when I figured out that this bear is the three-legged bear that visited my parents' bird feeder last summer.

After that, Dad drove in, the dogs have barked, and I backed my car out. He's moved all of 20 feet. Not really normal for a bear.

So I called the Wildlife Service. They're sending the trappers out. Apparently they already have a bear trap set just a mile or so down the road for a nuisance bear. I think I've caught him.

Updates to come soon - the trappers are still a couple hours away on another job before getting here. The bear doesn't seem to mind. Honestly, he looks so comfortable I'd be tempted to go curl up next to him in the sun and shade.

We'll see what happens next.

Update 2: So, the bear and her cubs have wandered off down by our pond. The Wildlife Service is sending the bear trappers, but they're on the other side of the county. And I am spending an unscheduled day working from home. This is what makes life with wildlife interesting!

Final (?) Update: Well, the guys from the Wildlife Service showed up with live bear trap in tow. Unfortunately they were about 20 minutes too late and Mama had taken her cubs off to the south. I filled them in on details, and they headed down the road to where a neighbor with a chicken coop had reported a bear break-in the night before. I sort of enjoy the novelty of bear and cubs in the neighborhood, especially of the sow is going to be so chill about things that I could get within a few yards of her before she got at all upset. Seems like the right kind of bear to have, if you're going to have one at all.

That said, as I was updating my own bear story, a friend from across town was riding her bike home and literally almost ran over the rear end of yet another bear. They all seem to be out and about right now. Maybe today is the day of the teddy bear picnic?

...geese, chickens, turkeys, omby and water buffalo...but this is certainly something I never had to deal with in the third world...

One final update: Late in the afternoon I loaded my uncle's dogs into the car to return them to whence they came. I left them briefly unattended while I returned to the house for something. They jumped, snarling and barking, out of the back of the car and chased off into the woods. I yelled and screamed and go them to come back. I locked them safely in the car and went and grabbed binoculars. Sure enough, the two of them had treed a bear. I watched it make its way back to the ground - this one had all four legs intact, and judging from the size, was probably a yearling or a two-year-old. That makes four bears within a baseball toss of my house all in broad daylight in one day. That's a personal record.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Life as a Status Update

The phenomenon that is Facebook has created a whole new means of communicating: the Status Update. (For those few remaining of you that have resisted the pull of social networking, a “status” is a brief statement about what you’re doing/thinking/feeling/marketing/observing that is visible to all of your friends or friends of friends or just plain everybody depending on your privacy settings.) The result of this status updating, which could be done near constantly with all the minutia of one’s life if one wished (Erica is waking up. Erica is getting dressed. Erica is making breakfast. Erica just realized she’s late for work...again…), is that all your Facebook contacts know what you’re doing, even though you may never actually exchange a personal communication with them.

In some ways this has made my life so much easier. People claim they don’t have time for Facebook. I don’t have time NOT to use Facebook. I don’t have time to sit and send e-mails to every single one of my 322 friends. That would be nearly one e-mail per day for nearly a year just to send a single message to each friend. Never mind replies and actual content. And so, I rely on occasionally updating my status to remind people that I am still alive, should they ever feel the need to actually speak directly to me.

And so, my life over the last several months sounds something like this:

Erica celebrated her first Valentine's Day with to her new job. It hasn't given her any diamonds (yet), but hey - sometimes employment is a girl's best friend.

Erica has recovered her Luther ring from the depths of the safety deposit box.

Erica can't understand how she just suffered massive grilled cheese sandwich FAIL.

Erica takes the bypass so she doesn't have to drive past the Culver's sign each day...

Erica never thought her introduction to *live* public radio would be a polka show...!!!

Erica made her percussion debut tonight - on bar chime and rainmaker.

Erica gives thanks for washing machines.

Erica apparently lives in the Single Best Town in America...

Erica thinks that a day that you get congratulated for doing nothing more than managing to pass another 365 days on the planet is wonderful. Thanks to all!

Erica made cookies yesterday. Shhh...don't tell anybody.

Erica received her order of three guilty pleasure books in the mail today.

Erica: You know the economy is still pretty bad when there’s a foreclosed and auction sign on the lawn of the temp employment agency…

Erica wonders about returning to her hotel room to find a used bath towel hanging on the back of the bathroom door. One that was not used by her.

Erica has officially been un-adopted by her dog.

Erica could, should and would, but doesn’t want to.

Erica left her iPod at home. She’s going to have to listen to the wind and the birds on her walk today.

Erica is celebrating the anniversary of the patent for blue jeans by wearing blue jeans.

Erica keeps her left foot firmly planted on the floor of the car when driving an automatic.

Erica just vacuumed the Halloween decorations off the front of the house.

You get the picture.

Unfortunately, this does very little for those people who aren’t on Facebook and wouldn’t know the status of my continued residency on this planet unless I actually communicate using one of the millions of other means at our disposal.

Then again, the complaint has been raised against me that I am guilty of “Vaugebooking.” I prefer to think of these updates as indicating a universal state. They could potentially apply to anybody or anything at any time. They just happen to apply to me at that moment.

What is more fun is the extrapolations and associations that others make. Let the comments begin!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bear Necessities

Spring sprung a lot earlier than usual around these parts. Thanks to an incredibly unseasonal string of 70 degree days back in March, just about everything seems to be happening about three weeks early. I guess especially after such a lame summer last year everything wants to get a head start now, and was rather undampened by the five inches of heavy wet snow we got last weekend. One good thing: snow in May just doesn’t stay.

This happened several weeks ago now, but since I’ve been so negligent of this space, it never got written down.

It was just dark on a balmy (and I mean balmy!) Sunday evening back in early April. It was about nine and I had just gotten off the phone with a friend. It was just beginning to cool off and a busy work day ahead was calling me to bed. I walked out on the porch to close the door. I briefly thought about letting the dog out that door to do his evening business, but a noise fortunately made me stop.

Out about 20 feet beyond our deck there was a horrible crying noise.

“Noooooooooooo! Noooooooo! Nooo!” wailed the sad sound.

“Noooooooo! Noooo! Oooooooo - nooooo!” it continued.

My heart stopped - I’d never heard such a thing. It sounded like a lost and hurt child.

One of the bulbs in the outdoor floodlight had burned out and the other had been stolen by the winter pond skaters, so I had no way of looking to see if I could find something. And as much as things might sound human, I know very well that any variety of animals, from cats in heat to mountain lion, can convince somebody that there is a person in distress in the dark.

So, I ran for the phone. And, of course, called my daddy.

I held the phone out into the dark (while a very baffled dog sat at my feet trying to figure out what was interrupting his evening routine) for my dad to hear the noise. It came and it went, and soon was accompanied by the scrabbling of claws on a tree. Whew, at least it really wasn’t human now.

Dad was just as confused as I. Raccoons? It’s said they say it with far more abuse than a slap. Porkies also make a lot of noise this time of year.

But then the noise was joined by another, deeper and far more primal noise:

“No. Ugh. Hupmh. No.”

At least I’d already decided the first noise wasn’t human, but that second one, if it had come from an adult male human, would’ve had me dialing 9-1-1. The “no” was so clear that I fully expected the other lower octave noises to become words.

That was the last straw. I finally dug up a flashlight in hopes that the beam would go far enough into the woods to uncover the mystery.

Much to my surprise, the flashlight beam did reveal the intruder - it was much, much closer than I originally expected. And from the way it was crouched and snarling at me, my first thought was, “Wolverine!”

But just a few seconds later I saw the two black shapes scrabbling on the tree alongside the crouched menace. Then my brain kicked in, and I realized it was the momma bear and her two itty, bitty cubs. And they were making a fuss that I’m sure, like any human mother with twin toddlers throwing a tantrum in Walmart, was embarrassing and stressing her beyond intelligible words.

The next day my birdfeeders were taken down for the summer, and my attempts at an organized compost pile were abandoned. The bears are back - with these twins, the count stands somewhere at momma, two-year-old (last year’s yearling), twin yearlings (last year’s twin cubs) and two new cubs. That’s just the one family - there are still the three three-legged bears out there somewhere.

Since that day in early April I haven’t seen the bears myself. But pictures of this family made it to the front page of our local paper after they took up a week-long residence in one a tree downtown. Whatever the economy elsewhere, looks like it will be a bearish summer around here.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Earlier this week I was gently reprimanded by one of my two readers for the criminal neglect of this blog. Fair enough. So, to one of my two remaining fans - this comeback is for you.

But, as it is a Friday night and the end of a long week, I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal a move from another blogging friend’s playbook (which I think she ever-so-elegantly lifted from yet another creative word choreographer) and present you with a Seven Quick Takes Friday.

(The only downside is I’m not sure I have seven things to talk about. Well, hopefully by the time you finish reading this I will have thought of seven.)

1. The Job is going well. Hard to believe I’ve been on it for over three months now, and I still haven’t gotten fired. Not sure what I’m doing wrong, but I’ll keep trying to figure it out. As of now, I’m attached at the hip to three major projects, have fingers firmly planted in the pots of four more, and threatened soon to be ball-and-chained to five others. If only the gym teacher that failed me during the juggling unit could see me now.

2. I still manage to have a “life” outside of work. However, that “life” usually consists of me manhandling a sixteen-foot piece of intricately wound metal tubing while in the presence of others likewise manhandling pieces of wood and brass and generally annoying anybody within earshot. Rehearsals continue to consume at least two nights of my week, usually three. And a lot of the miles on my car. As they say, I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t getting something out of it. I seriously believe that this uses the parts of my brain that would otherwise rise in mutiny over the parts that are required for The Job if I didn’t distract and exhaust them on a regular basis.

3. I’ve been in the media a lot lately. Newspaper, radio, community newsletters, TV. My most recent TV appearance mostly consisted of B-roll of me being rather expressive while conversing with others about topics completely unrelated to the rather serious subject of the story, and me being introduced while the footage shows me walking away from the camera. Apparently I have a face and an attitude made for radio. Better yet, newsprint.

4. My dog has decided I am unworthy as a caretaker. My schedule now usually has me leaving the house by 7:30 or 7:45 AM and not returning until 8, 9 or 10 PM. He has been spending a lot of time on the job with my father. Since this is the spring opening for all of the seasonal cabins, this means the pup gets to ride around to all these fun cottages and chase chipmunks all up and down the Three Lakes chain. When I returned this evening from a two day conference and picked him up, his response to returning “home” was to hightail it back through the woods to Mom and Dad’s place. I guess I deserve it.

(Whew, over halfway...let’s hope I don’t run out of steam.)

5. More on the dog: he officially cannot be left alone. As my father says, it’s hard to believe a dog with such a high I.Q. can be so dumb. He has learned to open drawers and has now discovered the location and the means of accessing my parents’ breadbox. He eats whole loaves of bread. When bread isn’t available, apparently he will settle for SOS scouring pads. At least he hasn’t learned to open the refrigerator or the oven (yet).

6. I’ve learned that there is a SS Nazi marching song called “Erika.” It’s rather unnerving to see a regiment of Nazi soldiers marching down the street while singing about their sweet blond farm girl named after the heather flower, my own name, “Erika.”

(What, only one more? Oh, dear, better make it good.)

7. Oh! At least according to Disney Family Fun, it’s official: I live in the “Single Best Town in America." Please note, this is very different from the “Best Town for Singles,” which I can sincerely attest, it is not. I’m guessing that isn’t going to change on, after, or due to August 3rd, either.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Best Practices and Success Stories

A story:

The community was suffering. They were geographically isolated and their culture limited their mobility through the region. While they were skilled farmers, the couldn’t compete with the larger import groups that were pricing them out of the market.

News of this community in trouble got out and an agricultural educator came to the community. The spring tomatoes were scraggly and poorly-looking. The fruit was small and each plant only gave a few tomatoes. There might have even been some parasites. The early season market was a great opportunity to outsell the larger producers, but the unpredictable spring weather was wreaking havoc on the farmer’s attempts to start their plants early.

The agricultural educator devised a plan and a whole new system for growing was suggested. Rather than trying to heat greenhouses with wood, a bit of clear plastic and some black boards became solar green houses. New compost and mulching techniques were taught. Plants better suited to local conditions were identified and cultivated. Low-tech and cost-effective irrigation systems were employed.

As a result, these farmers began producing the best quality early spring and late fall crops in the region. They sent their produce to market, and based on their success, formed a new co-op for selling at auction. They began to out-compete the larger warehouses and were able to develop a successful system of co-sharing profits and reinvesting in their community farm production. The community was strengthened and whole families benefited from this new source of revenue.

A question:

Where did this story take place?

No, it isn't a Peace Corps story. It's not even a USAID or iNGO story.

This story is the story of a UW Cooperative Extension program with the Amish and Mennonite communities in central Wisconsin.

To me, this story captures the essence of the parallels of the international work I was doing, and the state-wide work the UW Cooperative Extension is doing right here at home. The same successes we come to expect in rural, traditional and often isolated communities in the international world is what the UW Cooperative Extension is modeling and perfecting right here at home.

And once again, I discover I have found my home again in Wisconsin.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

How my job is (and is not) like Peace Corps.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about my new job so far has been the intense sense of déjà vu that I have at least three times every day. How is it possible that I can be home in my own town, my own community, speaking my own language, and yet what I see in front of me is a vision of what I was supposed to understand when I was 10,000 miles and two hemispheres away.

I suppose I had some idea of what the University Extension program was all about. It’s fairly easy to see some immediate parallels: find some educated people, stick them in remote communities, provide a series of trainings and give them access to resources. Major differences are also obvious: we were true foreigners in that community, most of us were pretty young and clueless, and our term was for two years, three at most. Still, in theory there’s a lot to be matched in the theory.

Yet, there were other parallels. Extension was raised as a model of what some of the agricultural outreach services were intended to do in remote Madagascar and Vietnam. The “Champion Communities” model also strove to do something similar with putting a educated (usually young) Malagasy person in each community to serve as a coordinator for community collaboration and improvement. Unfortunately, they lacked the impressive pay and academic support the Extension system offers. They were forced to make choices between doing things to take care of themselves and seeking to find resources from other places.

And so I come home to the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension program. A program that puts graduate-degreed (or imposes the requirement to become so) professionals in multiple sectors in each county, pays them a living wage with the type of benefits and provides the type of supports that allows one to focus on work, and then floods them with access to the type of resources that might overwhelm some, but would cause any self-respecting geek to drool.

I’m not saying the UW Extension system is perfect, but you can see what the Peace Corps and all of these other community-based expert programs strive to do through it. Just as when you are dropped at site as a PCV, UWEX orientation (at least in the family living program, which parallels the health education program fairly neatly) maps out your timeline from first day, first week, first month, first three months, first year. Your supervisor takes you courtesy visits to the important people. You read the black book or letter left from your predecessor (if you had one). They tell you to do a needs assessment, but you spend the first three months trying to figure out what to do. And they tell you not to even attempt a Plan of Work before six months. You get trained in cross-cultural sensitivity.

But then Extension does it better. Granted, they can plan on having their agents around for longer than two years. They offer professional development in every effort to try to keep agents around longer. In the ideal (and sometimes in fact), county agents become a central resource to their community, providing information to politicians, and documenting program impact through research and academic evaluation. Peace Corps was great. But now I’m seeing how it can really work, when real academic, political and yes, some financial, resources can be mustered. Sure, the extension system could be better. And Peace Corps is a fantastic program for reasons that the Extension can never dream of. But I do see in the day-to-day functioning of the Extension program, thus far, a system that developing countries should envy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Mourning for the Old Way of Life

On February 1, 2010, I drove away from the house that I have called home for the last nine months at 7 AM, and looked back at it, knowing that it would be at least six days before I saw the daylight through the windows. I cried.

The most difficult part about starting a new job - one that involves a 45 minute one-way commute - was giving up the flexibility and comfort of working mainly from home. The house I'm living in has an extraordinary view, and on fortunate days in the winter, is full of sunlight from sunrise to late afternoon.

Trading that, and the ability to put in a load of laundry or bake a loaf of bread while I sit at my desk in the sunlight, for a basement office locked far away from any natural light from eight in the morning to four thirty or later at night, almost convinced me I'd made a mistake.

That long last look back was subsumed by days of orientation, organizing the office, and evenings full of music rehearsals. Now, almost three weeks into my job, I know I haven't made a mistake. It is possible to make the basement world a bit more habitable, and I've found the other basement dwellers to be more than welcoming (maybe they're planning to fatten me up and eat me?). Many evenings I've had to kill time and haven't left work until after 5, and for the first week that meant I didn't come up until after dark. Now, I find it disturbing to emerge above ground in the evening to find the late afternoon sun blazing onto the parking lot.

Maybe next year you can hire me to be your groundhog.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reformed Reflections

Even as a Catholic, I have a special place in my heart for Lutherans, particularly the ELCA Lutheran church. It all began the fateful day when I realized that if I really wanted to experience music in college, a Catholic university just wasn't going to cut it. Whatever you want to say about the Reformation, Martin Luther had something right when he returned the gift of music to the people of the church.

And so I matriculated at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where I, a good German Catholic girl, well-acquainted with Friday night fish fry, Vatican II and incense, was enrolled in a four-year intensive course in "How to Speak Norwegian Lutheran" à la Garrison Keillor and Weston Nobel.

This week, I was again doused in all of the best of the First Protestant Church.

Today, Sunday, the Northwoods Brass Quintet added its voice to a special service celebrating the 20th anniversary of Prince of Peace Lutheran church in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Throughout the service people shared memories of the first days of the "mission church" in Eagle River and the construction of the building and sanctuary boasting beautiful acoustics and a warm, welcoming atmosphere - an atmosphere that reflects directly the personal warmth of the congregation that inhabits it. A small church in northern Wisconsin, but with a full-voiced choir of the type that would inspire Luther to post his 95 theses all over again.

Lutherans say music is second only to Word in the liturgical experience. Luther College seeks to instill this in all of its students, and often it is the students themselves that further push the envelope in how music can best be used to express that which is inexpressible.

One of those students who used music as a bridge across cultures and religious experiences has been lost to this world. Ben Larson, Luther graduate of '06 and fourth year seminarian, died when the main building of St. Joseph's Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, collapsed on him during the earthquake on January 12, 2010.

Ben, the younger brother of my twin sister Luther compatriots, lived for music and for the Lutheran church. On Friday I had the honor of attending his memorial service at Luther College. In true Luther style, the event was meticulously planned and hastily thrown together. Every detail was attended to (as one might expect of a memorial service planned by a family of musical pastors and ex-bishops with a contingent of advising pastors and bishops for a near-pastor), but the execution of the event was up to a motley crew of those with various musical talents gathering that day. The result was seamless, and a highly appropriate mix of decorum and informality.

This, to my experience, is the essence of the Lutheran tradition, and the one that the Catholics stand to learn the most from. Ritual guides the practice, but a deep, underlying humanity colors the actual event.

Every human being, regardless of religious creed, should have the type of memorial I witnessed this week. Less the particular ceremony, and more the intent and emotion behind it. Sometimes you need to leave your own tradition to rediscover it in another.