Monthly Archives: February 2016

My Funny Valentine

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What planet is this? I want to go to there.

I’m not one of those singles who gets all bitter and surly on Valentine’s Day. Nope, I’m bitter and surly pretty much every day. That said, February 14 can be a bit wearing for those of us without a partner. Once, while doing research for a presentation to a church youth group on being single (I’m the go-to in the parish for an example of being “called to a life of chastity.” Yay me.), I discovered a statistic that 99.4% of all human beings will “form a pair-bond” at some point in their lives.

Well, that’s discouraging. So who are those other five people? Is there a club T-shirt?

Honestly, I’m perfectly content with my solo life at least 99.4% of the time. Yet, despite my mom once telling her lady friends, “Keri just isn’t interested in men” – words that perhaps conveyed a very different impression than she intended – I am in fact a hopeless romantic. Occasionally my heart has yearned toward some actual person: there was the boy I pined for all through high school (I have a he-didn’t-ask-me-to-prom story more anguished and tragic than anything in one of those sparkly vampire movies); a professional pianist who was almost certainly in the closet; my former chiropractor, who I paid for sassy banter, rather than actual treatment; a theatre major from grad school (OMG, he was a dissolute cad); and a few others even more mortifying. All were, of course, unrequited.

Mostly, though, I have always gotten my cheap thrills from ‘shipping fictional couples. Indeed, I can trace the course of my life by the TV lovers I was obsessed with at the time. How many of these do you recognize?

Myloves

  • Anne & Gilbert (young Canadians in love!)
  • Elizabeth & Darcy (young Colin Firth in love!)
  • Laura & Remington (young private investigators in love!)
  • Lee & Amanda (young spies in love!)
  • Jack & Jennifer (young journalists in love!)
  • Rose & Ten (800-year-old Time Lord and age-inappropriate companion in love!)
  • Kid & Lou (young cowboys in love! Note: These were not Brokeback Mountain cowboys; Lou was a girl)
  • Sheridan & Delenn (young-ish cross-species diplomats in love!)
  • Mulder & Scully (young alien hunters in love!)
  • Connor & Abby (young dinosaur-fighters in love!)
  • Bob & Peggy (senior citizen bed-and-breakfast owners in love!)

Based on what I hear from the coupled people around me at work, these vicarious fictional relationships are at least as satisfying as the real thing. So this Sunday, while 99.4% of you will be pretending to be having a good time with your bouquets of roses and boxes of chocolates and candlelit dinners and wild, passionate sex, I will be curled up on the couch with my cats, my DVD collection and these:

Lava-Me-Alone Valentine Heart Cakes (adapted from this recipe)

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Basic ingredients.

Tastefully Simple Truffle Fudge Brownie Mix
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
½ cup TS Creamy Caramel Sauce, Raspberry Divine Sauce, Sea Salt Fudge Sauce or some other gooey sweet stuff. I chose Raspberry Divine Sauce (no longer available) because it has been in the pantry longest)

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There are many tasty sauce options available.

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My mini heart pan. Muffin tins or ramekins would also work, possibly better.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Whisk eggs and egg yolks until foamy. Add brownie mix and melted butter; mix until blended. Fold in sauce. Pour into heart-shaped mini-cake pans (alternately muffin tins or ramekins with paper liners), about ¾ full. Bake 15-17 minutes or until edges are set and centers are slightly dry but still jiggly. Allow to cool in pan 5 minutes, then carefully remove cakes pan. Sift with powdered sugar and drizzle with additional sauce if you desire (and you know you do).

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Yum.

Best served warm, so the gooey “molten” center oozes out when the cake is pierced.

NOTE: The centers of my heart-shaped cakes weren’t as molten as I expected; I think I may have slightly overbaked them. An extra I made in a ramekin “molted” (Moltilized? Moltified?) better. Either way, decadently delicious.

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Molten innards exposed!

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The Mother of All Mothers

“I could never live with my mother.”

That’s the response I usually get when someone learns of my unusual living arrangement. I moved back to my hometown a dozen years ago, not long after the unexpected death of my Dad. Unhappy in my job and hating the Big City (okay, it was St. Paul. But still.), I was happy to return to the nest. It meant starting my career over in an entirely new field (writing and editing for a food company after 15 years in college faculty development). But I was happy to be closer to mom, then in her 70s. And by closer, I mean “practically on top of,” since we co-habit the same modest, three-bedroom home, which I have purchased from her.

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Me and my favorite lady.

The idea that we wouldn’t get along never occurred to me, as I’ve always been close to my mother. I guess I never went through the pivotal “achieving independent adulthood by rebelling” phase. It would not be true to say my roomie and I never butt heads. We are in some ways very different (e.g., she is tidy by nature; I am Oscar Madison in female form. She is sensible and conservative; I squander my time and money on foolishness.)

It makes me sad to hear others say they couldn’t stand so much togetherness with their mothers. My life over the last decade-plus has been immeasurably enriched by spending quality time with my surviving parent. She has taught me, through example and occasionally a sharp word, how to be a better person. The gifts I’ve received add up to a priceless treasure. Thank you, mom, for sharing with me your …

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Visiting a one-room schoolhouse in the Black Hills, mom demonstrated her no-nonsense teaching technique from when she taught in a similar school.

Humor. Her sense of humor is less off-beat than mine, but my mom is very funny. Her often-ascerbic commentary on the world makes me laugh every day.

Strength. Like everyone, my mom has faced some dark moments in life. She has borne sorrows and worry with extraordinary grace and fortitude. She is a pillar and model for me in dealing with hard times. Her maxim: hold on to your faith and get through one day at a time.

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Mom alternately cusses and dotes on the cats

Compassion. Not one to wear her heart on her sleeve, my Mom is nevertheless a great-hearted woman. She is kind to animals and children and would do anything in the world for her family. Seeing those she loves hurting is perhaps the hardest thing she has to bear.

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She told the painting teacher to call her Great-grandma Moses.

Creativity. My mom is clever. She is known for writing cute little poems, writing skits and declam pieces, making quilts and embroidering towels and pillowcases and, most recently, little baptismal gowns for babies welcomed into our parish. Though her busy life has not given her time to fully indulge her creative impulse, I don’t know of anything she doesn’t do well.

Service. It’s a characteristic of the Greatest Generation that they give back to the community. Both my parents illustrated this principle in spades. Over the years, mom has been active in church work, the nursing home auxiliary, religious education, the VFW auxiliary, heritage society, Daughters of Isabella, Christian Mothers, the church council and many other organizations and causes. Hers is a generous spirit, and she gives without thought for acknowledgement or praise.

Faith. My mother’s Catholic faith is the core of her being. She actually goes to church several times a week – not out of obligation, like the rest of us (admit it), but because her faith and church community genuinely uplift and strengthen her. Whenever anyone in the family has a problem, the first recourse is, “Ask mom to pray about it.” We all know she carries a lot of weight with the Man upstairs.

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She’s always up for an adventure, like playing “The Dowager” in my murder mystery tea party.

Industry. It’s long been a family joke that we all wish we had our mother’s energy. One of her few complaints about growing older has been that she tires a bit more easily than she used to. But she’ll still rustle up an enormous holiday weekend extravaganza, preparing mountains of food, and be the life of the party to boot. Mom is what people call a good, hard worker. Whether it’s serving fish at the monthly VFW fish fry or laundering linens for the church or making baked goods for some fundraiser, she is always there. During her career as a bank teller, she was extraordinarily diligent and conscientious. I remember her getting my Dad to take her to work on the back of a snowmobile over six-foot snowdrifts during a raging blizzard one Friday evening; frankly, any fool who felt they had to cash a check in that kind of weather deserved to freeze. But mom was expected to work … and she made it.

MyBeautiful Mama

She played (gasp!) the villainess in last summer’s garden party production.

Attitude. Mom loves life. She participates with gusto and is very rarely down. “You’re as happy as you make your mind up to be,” she has often said. She may fret and stew about some things, but her perspective is always forward. She lives life to the fullest, and makes others’ lives fuller by her presence in the world.

Wisdom. Mother knows best. She really, actually does. Over a long life she’s seen a lot of water run under the bridge, and learned the sometimes hard lessons. She has firm opinions of right and wrong, good and bad, what to do and what not to do, and she has been known to express those opinions once or twice. And you know what? On those few occasions when I have gone against her advice … I have regretted it. While her advice may not always be easy to hear, it is always given with love and with wanting what’s best for her family at the heart of it.

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My little family: Sis Kathy, bro Kev, myself and our matriarch.

There are so many other things I could say about my mom, who turns 89-years-old today. Let me say only this one thing more: You are my hero, Mom, and my best friend. These past years we’ve had together have been the happiest and richest of my life, and I thank God every day for my adorable, feisty, funny and loving mother.

I love you.

meandmymomma

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AI: Artificial Incompetence

MCPFor decades, science fiction has been warning us that there would come a time when humanity would be vanquished by computers. That time is now. However, it’s not sleek androids brandishing laser cannons that will do us in, or even a suddenly sentient, megalomaniac collection of code like Tron’s Master Control Program.

Nope, civilization is bound to fall – and soon – under the weight of frustration at how much harder our labor-saving devices make life. Let me illustrate.

Example 1:

10355525_10203840385073916_637920995698392683_oI took my newish car (a red Kia Soul; it’s adorable) to be serviced because the “check transmission” light came on. The mechanic looked it over carefully and told me there’s nothing wrong with the transmission.

“But the light is still on,” I persisted.

He shrugged. “Yeah, they just come on sometimes, and there’s really no way to fix that. It might turn off by itself, eventually.”

“So how will I know if something really does go wrong with the transmission?”

“The car will stop running.”

Example 2:

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My Nemesis

The high-tech ladies’ room at work had me convinced for a while that I was a vampire. The sinks will only dispense soap* and turn on the faucets if you perform the precise ritual that will convince the sensor that you are human. Yet no matter how I wiggled my digits or – eventually – clenched my fists in rage, the neo-Star Trek plumbing system refused to acknowledge my existence. Ditto on the self-dispensing paper towel dispenser*.

The space-age toilets are even more maddening. In one of the stalls, the damned auto-toidy flushes three times before you even get the door closed. In another, you have to do an exuberant dance (think Michael Flately) in front of the bowl to get it to do its job. There’s one downstairs which requires you to remain absolutely still on the throne, as the slightest deviation from true north will set off the flush … repeatedly.

On one occasion I was obliged to … ahem … extend my visit. Knowing the machine’s foibles, I held myself rigidly, moderating my very breaths like an Olympic marksman who only pulls the trigger between heartbeats. The stool was apparently satisfied with my endurance and held its peace. But I suddenly found myself plunged into complete darkness when the overhead lighting, which is also on a sensor system, decided the place was empty. Cue the Riverdance again to get the lights back on.

Example 3:

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Me? Not according to the vending machine robot

A couple of years ago, the company I work for replaced the onsite coffee shop with a “self-service market.” Instead of the friendly lady behind the till who used to take my money, I am now confronted with a boxy contraption with which I must negotiate to get a bottle of soda. Step one is waving the bar code on the bottle in front of the ubiquitous sensor. Usually, this causes it to beep. Sometimes, if the label is a little crinkled or I’m not holding the bottle at the right angle or the moon is in retrograde, the machine refuses to accept my order.

If it does, I am presented with a screen that lists my tally and prompts me to place my thumb on – you guessed it – a sensor. With laser precision, this device reads my thumbprint and then, in a rather terse, female voice, informs me, “Account not found.”

Thumb the sensor again.

Account not found.” I swear, if I machine could smirk, that’s what it would be doing.

I remonstrate with her. “Look. I fed you $40 in credit just this morning, and you were happy to take it. Now you don’t know who I am?”

Account not found.

24829481_sThere follows the tedious process of rescanning my thumb and saving it to my profile. Finally I am able to secure my prize, a bottle of Diet Pepsi. Alas, it seems my paltry purchase displeases my mechanical mistress, as she dismisses me with a curt, almost frosty, “Thankyouforyourpurchase.” (And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.)

Am I the only person who has to endure these indignities, this cruel subjugation by supposedly mindless machines? Perhaps I will take a stand, get off the Grid, reclaim my humanity. But not until next week. I’m expecting my robot vacuum to come in the mail on Monday.

*These tormentors have since been replaced by manual ones. The faucets and toilets, however, continue their reigns of terror.

 

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Almost as Good as Frozen!

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Second verse, same as the first

Gastronomically speaking, I grew up in a traditional Midwestern American home. My father, who worked long hours, would come home at 6:00 pm and sit down to a supper that my mom, who also worked long hours, had prepared for us. It was almost always some variation on a single theme: a piece of meat, some version of potato, a soupy vegetable (creamed peas, creamed corn, creamed carrots) and a slice of white bread, thickly slathered with butter. My Daddy was all about the butter; don’t even think of trying to pawn off that new-fangled margarine on the man. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but it was even worse to try to put one over on my Dad. He was a butter purist.

On rare occasions, Dad was willing to branch out a bit. A family friend sometimes had us over for tacos. These made Daddy’s bald head sweat, so he’d wrap a paper towel around his crown like a turban. It always got a big laugh.

Our dearth of culinary diversity wasn’t because of lack of imagination or skill on my mother’s part. It was what my father wanted to eat. For a guy who grew up eating mostly oatmeal during the Depression, he was surprisingly particular about his cuisine. He didn’t much care for hotdish (casserole, for you out-of-staters), and he had no time for that wonder of the modern age, frozen food.

Of course, everyone in our family who WASN’T my Dad knew that frozen pizza, TV dinners and sandwiches wrapped in foil were THE GREATEST THING EVER. So, on those rare occasions when our paterfamilias was absent from home at mealtime (up north deer hunting, or men’s night at the golf course), we got to eat delicious, packaged, highly processed food. Hurrah!

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That corn, tho.

In truth, I was never that crazy about TV dinners, those “full course” meals that came in segmented aluminum trays. They were available in varieties like Salisbury steak, turkey with gravy, unidentifiable chicken parts. And they always had that one little triangle in the corner containing a vegetable – usually corn – that was not steeped in cream sauce. Boo.

A better choice were the sandwiches wrapped in colorful foil, which you heated in the oven. There was the chuckwagon – a large, round bun stuffed with salami and cheese that was a precise representation of what the bold and hardy cowboys didn’t eat on the range. Alternatively, you could choose the torpedo sandwich, which was exactly the same as the chuckwagon sandwich, except it came on an elongated bun. Presumably it reflected the kind of rations that bold and hardy sailors didn’t eat on their submarines.

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The traditional chuck wagon, where chuck wagon sandwiches were not prepared.

The very, very best pre-packaged delicacy, though, was the frozen pot pie. It came in a trio of flavors: chicken (ambrosia!), turkey (poor man’s chicken) and beef (acceptable, if it was the only kind left). How eagerly I watched my mother remove each little aluminum foil pie tin from its box, stab the frozen top crust with a fork, set it on a cookie sheet and pop it into the oven.

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Before

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After

It went into the fire pallid and solid as stone; it came out golden brown – except on the edges, which always burned – and bubbling with delicious gravy goo.

There is a precise method to eating these things. You stab the top crust with a spoon, releasing the steam, then carefully peel back the crust in sections, like a surgeon cracking open a chest for a bypass. Carefully stir the innards, deftly plucking out the inedible bits (the little square carrot pellets and wrinkly peas). Spoon up and savor the gravy and chicken chunks, frowning a little when you accidentally get a mushy chunk of potato, which is harder to identify in the gelatinous mass and therefore may escape the vegetable culling.

Finally … the best part of all. At the bottom of the now-empty aluminum foil pie tin, one finds a treasure: the cardboardy crust with its sheen of gravy that has soaked into it just a little bit. Peel up the crust in chunks and, if you are particularly bold, eat it with your fingers. These were the greatest moments of my childhood.

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The gift that keeps on giving

You can still get frozen pot pies these days, but they are a sad shadow of their former selves: even smaller, only partly filled with goo and worst of all, packaged in cardboard instead of aluminum foil bowls. Convenient for the microwave, perhaps, but you lose half the value of the meal. For in the old days, the little aluminum tin was carefully washed and saved for many useful purposes. I think we still have a stack of 50 of them in the cupboard above the sink.

It occurred to me that I might attempt a version of my childhood favorite using some of my Tastefully Simple products. And so, I present …

Perfectly Individual Parmesan Biscuit Pot Pies (adapted from this recipe)

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the guts of the stuff

  • Perfectly Potato Cheddar Soup Mix
  • 4 cups water
  • 1½ lbs. cooked, cubed chicken breast
  • 2 (14 oz.) cans mixed vegetables, drained (Hint: Or use only one can – less vegetables to pick out of the finished product!)
  • 2 tsp. Seasoned Salt
  • 2 Tbsp. white cooking wine (can be omitted; I only used because I’ve had a bottle of the stuff sitting in my cupboard for a few years)
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • Perfect Parmesan Biscuit Mix
  • 2/3 cup cold water
  • 2/3 cup finely shredded Cheddar Cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. Italian Garlic Seasoning
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goo ingredients

Mix together the soup mix and water and simmer for 20 minutes; add the chicken, canned vegetables, seasoned salt, cooking wine and onion powder. Cook until heated through.

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tasty goo in progress

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Prepare the biscuit dough as directed on package.

Pour the filling into oven-proof bowls, mugs or ramekins, filling them about ¾ full. Place tablespoon-sized chunks of biscuit dough on top of the mixture, enough to cover the whole top of the individual serving dish. Place filled bowls on a cookie sheet and put in the oven. Bake for 15-17 minutes or so, until the biscuit topping is lightly brown. Remove cookie sheet from the oven.

Melt 1 Tbsp. butter and stir in 1 tsp. Italian Garlic Seasoning. Brush melted butter mixture on the biscuit topping.

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Cheesy Biscuit Gooey Yummy

I’m not gonna lie. This isn’t quite as good as those frozen pot pies of yore. And to be honest, the biscuit topping was a little doughy on the bottom. But it was still pretty darned delicious.

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It’s All Relative

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Artist’s rendering of me on a Mohror back day

I am a great believer in heredity, for the valid scientific reason that it allows me to blame my forebears for all my undesirable traits. Thus, when I shamble around, as bent-over and hunch-shouldered as that famous bell ringer from Notre Dame, I can respond to the stares of my coworkers with a terse, “It’s the Mohror back.” Similarly, I can attribute the dour attitude that prompts such grumbling to my paternal kin. (It could be argued that my older relations’ somewhat dark perspective on the world owes more to growing up impoverished during the Great Depression than to having genes coded for grumpiness. But that doesn’t excuse MY propensity to kvetch – so I’m sticking with my theory. I was BORN this way.)

While my Dad’s side – honest, soft-hearted, generous, hard-working, good people, by the way – are usually the objects of my accusatory finger-pointing, today I am going to complain, in my Mohrorish way, about a legacy of the Welsh side. Specifically, funny knees.

Recently I had a conversation with my doctor on this subject. “In my family,” I explained, “our knees tend to migrate inward.”

The doctor nodded. “Yeah. Okay, that can’t actually happen, though.”

“But it does!” I was very firm on this point. What we call “Millie’s knees,” after the beloved aunt whose affliction first brought the issue to the forefront of our familial consciousness, is a real thing. How well I remember that day when I heard my mother, in the middle of dressing for the day, suddenly exclaiming, “Oh, my God! I’ve got Millie’s knees!” And so, now, do I.

The doctor had me stand. She ran her hands up and down my calves and knee joint as if examining a lame horse, then frowned gravely. “Well … you’re a little knock-kneed.”

“What does THAT mean?” I demanded with Mohror-like peevishness.

“Your knees angle in and touch each other, instead of facing straight on. But your kneecaps are in the right place; it’s your legs that are turned wrong.”

Oh.

Knock-kneesTechnically, this condition is called Genu valgum, which sounds like the name of one of the more convoluted, late-series alien conspiracy episodes of X Files.

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The cure!

 

 

 

 

And apparently there are devices that can nudge your knees – er, legs – back into alignment over time. But the thought of strapping myself into one of those things produced a flashback to my earliest childhood. I was born rather substantially pigeon-toed. (Misshapen joints seem to be a theme with me, though I don’t think I can blame any long-dead Welshes or Mohrors for this one; it’s my own mutation, apparently. Hurray! I always knew I’d accomplish something in life.)

pigeontoed shoes

These were exactly as comfortable as they look.

Anyway. As a toddler, I was prescribed corrective shoes to wear overnights to cure me of this deformity. I still hold in my mind an image – probably my earliest memory – of the screws that held this contraption together. I didn’t wear them long, my Dad having decided it was cruel to subject his littlest one to this torture. Ah, there’s that Mohror soft-heartedness again. And since as an adult I only rarely trip over my own feet, I think he made the right call.

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Me, in 2050. Look how straight my knees are!

That’s why I will not seek treatment for my Millie’s knees disease. I’m going to assume I will eventually grow out of it, as I did my pigeon toes, without high-tech intervention. That failing, I will hope to live long enough to have my consciousness transferred into one of the gleaming, perfect android bodies that science fiction has always promised us.

Yeah. That’ll work.

 

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My Secret Identity

There’s an amusing commercial for ancestry.com in which a man who grew up in lederhosen discovers, via his DNA test, that he’s of Scottish, not German ancestry. So he trades in his Teutonic garb for a Celtic kilt. (To be honest, the sight of a grown man in either short pants or a skirt in this part of rural Minnesota would make for an uncomfortable scene, but I understand other parts of the world are more liberal about such things.)

I had a similar experience recently when the top boffins at ancestry.com’s DNA lab analyzed the goo I hocked into their test tube and declared that I am predominantly Scandinavian – 54%, to be exact. My “Western European” ancestry comes up a paltry 16% – presumably that’s the German, but it could just as well be French. Good God! Has the world gone mad?

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Here’s the thing:

Some Mohrors

Could these people look more Germanic? I don’t think so. 

Family tradition has always dictated that I am Irish on my mother’s side (borne out by ancestry.com at 24%) and predominantly German on my father’s side (with a side of Norwegian from my Grandma Mohror, though her maiden name, Bergley, defiantly comes up Scottish in Google searches).

The fact that I (or at least my sputum) actually derive from more Northern lands creates some awkwardness. You see, we’ve always attributed our least desirable personality traits to our Germanic genes. When my often taciturn father stomped around mad, or lapsed into one of his moody silences, my mother would shake her head and murmur, “That’s the German in him.” Of course, we also claimed the more attractive stereotypes of the Deutsche Volken: industriousness, ingenuity, punctuality, loyalty.

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The Kensington Runestone, which may have been carved by Vikings. Or Knights Templar. Or some local farmer looking to make some dough off the gullible tourists.

I grew up in predominantly Scandinavian rural Minnesota (Alexandria: Birthplace of America! If you believe America was discovered by Vikings, who took the time to chisel their experiences into a hunk of granite). The Norwegians and Swedes around me always seemed a clannish sort with strange customs (A crown of lighted candles on a little girl’s head? That can’t be a good idea.) and even stranger food traditions. I mean, lutefisk is fish soaked in lye, for heaven’s sake. Hello, lye is a deadly poison. Between that and the candle hats, I have to wonder if the Scandihoovians practiced a fairly brutal form of population control back in the day.

UncleOle

Great-Uncle Ole

So what am I to do with this new information? Buy a rosette iron? Start rolling out lefse every Christmas? Add a few more “uff das” and “ja, shure, yew betchas” into my everyday speech? I find myself in kind of an existential crisis here. Who am I, really, in the deepest essence of my being?

And most importantly, what the hell am I supposed to do with this T-shirt? tshirt

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