Category Archives: Lifestyle

Let’s Talk Turkey

39182534 - dirty dishes over flowing in a kitchen sinkFor the first 30-odd years of my life, our traditional Thanksgiving celebration was an annual source of dread. Not because of the food, which was invariably delicious, or the company, which was convivial. No, the source of anxiety was due to the fact that it required a journey from the hinterland to my sister’s inlaws in the Cities – a trek that was always fraught with tension for us small town folks. In late November in Minnesota, slick roads and limited visibility are always a concern. But even those years when the weather was clear as a bell, disaster was always just an ill-chosen lane change away. We country folk don’t do well in urban environments. We fear the traffic, the aggression of big-city drivers, the bewildering tangle of lanes and exits one has to navigate. Here’s the thing about city driving: If you miss your exit, or worse, get into the wrong lane and are forced to exit where you don’t want to, there’s a very good chance that you will never, ever find your way back on the right path again. My college roommate’s family, from an even more northerly and rural small town, once had occasion to drive to the Twin Cities for a family wedding. They became hopelessly lost and drove aimlessly around Minneapolis and St. Paul all day and into the night, missing the wedding and reception entirely. Finally they stopped at a hotel for the night and somehow managed to find their way home again the next morning. This is what it’s like for us bumpkins.

Artist's recreation of our annual trip to the Twin Cities.

Artist’s recreation of our annual trip to the Twin Cities.

So despite taking the same route every year for decades, the perennially befuddled trio of Mom, Dad and me got lost to some degree almost every Thanksgiving. As my Dad would mutter between clenched teeth as he gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled, “They change the damned roads every year.” (They don’t.) There was a precise moment, even after an otherwise uneventful first 120 miles, when it was more than 50-50 that things would go sideways. We took a particular off-ramp from the interstate, which terminated in an intersection. We had a choice at that point to turn to the left, traversing a freeway overpass, or continue going straight. And every, single year when we reached that stoplight, we would look at one another with panic-stricken expressions and murmur, “Do we turn here? Do we go over the bridge? Or do we go straight?” Since we all clearly had some kind of mental block about this decision, it might have made sense for us to record the right answer on a piece of paper and stash it in the glove compartment for consultation on subsequent trips. Strangely, that never occurred to us. So we continued to make the wrong decision about half the time. In fact, thinking back now, I still don’t remember if we turn at that stupid intersection.

It’s been quite a few years now since the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage ended. Both German patriarchs of our respective families are gone, their progeny dispersed hither and yon. Nowadays Thanksgiving is a quiet day at home, just me and my mom. We have managed to create a few new traditions, though. I always cook a feast for 10, and mom always wonders aloud why I don’t produce a more reasonable quantity of food for two people. And I patiently explain that cutting down a recipe involves math that makes my head explode. You tell me, what’s a quarter of 3/8 of a cup? I feel a panic attack coming on just typing that equation.

For this year’s turkey, I decided to try Alton Brown’s brining technique. I did a simple dry brine last year, and found it changed my turkey experience not at all. It occurred to me that more dramatic results must surely require more elaborate preparation, hence the two-day brine odyssey. I assembled and cooked the ingredients on Tuesday evening: a gallon of vegetable stock, a cup of salt and a few sprinkles of some obscure and outrageously priced spices (Fun fact: a small bottle of candied ginger will set you back $10 in these parts, and the likelihood that you’ll ever use more than the single teaspoon called for in this recipe is just about nil. Ditto on the “allspice berries.”) Anyway. On Wednesday evening I assembled the brew in a 5-gallon bucket: murky, urine-colored brine, a gallon of heavily iced water and the naked turkey bird. The whole concoction was placed in the downstairs refrigerator overnight – though, since Alton specifies turning the bird over halfway through the 12-hour process, I had to stay up until 1 am watching pimple-popping videos until time to roll the fowl over onto her back.

In the morning, the Butterball looked a bit the worse for wear. And by Butterball, I refer to myself. The turkey seemed fine. I hoisted it out of the brine, which I discarded to my mother’s great dismay (“What a waste!”). Perhaps I should have saved it to make soup, or ladled it into sparkling crystal glasses with a spritz of seltzer for a pre-feast aperitif. (People drink Cold Duck, don’t they? Shouldn’t Salty Turkey be a thing?). Tom Turkey (whom I addressed as “our gentleman caller” in my best Southern drawl) went into the sink for a quick rinse. Then the poor devil had “steeped savories” poured down his hollow gullet. This comprised an apple, a cinnamon stick and half an onion, microwaved on high for five minutes. Then Tom was slathered with canola oil until he glistened like a bodybuilder, sprinkled with Rustic Herb Seasoning and popped into a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes, followed by 2.5 hours at 350.

Tip

Cooking Tip: If you have previously had an apple pie run over onto the bottom of your oven, or perhaps a few chunks of frozen pizza fall between the grates of the rack onto the heating element, it is wise to clean the oven before subjecting it to this level of heat. Unless you like smoked turkey.

I’m happy to report that, apart from a faint hint of charcoal scent from the pie filling incineration, the turkey turned out well. To be honest, though, it did not differ appreciably in flavor or texture from every other turkey I’ve ever eaten. Perhaps one has to have a truly discerning palate, like people who test fine wines or new ice cream flavors, to appreciate the difference that all the fuss of brining the bird makes. Mom and I enjoyed a delightful feast which is likely to continue in several forms of leftovers over the course of the next week or so (see “Cooking a 100 lbs. of food for two people” above).

 

We even made one of those trendy “mannequin” videos to commemorate the occasion.

The full Tastefully Simple-centric menu, in case you are interested, consisted of:

Roasted Rustic Herb Turkey, crockpot mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry fluff salad, Spinach & Herb Butter Rolls with Shallot Tarragon Butter, Creamy Wild Rice Stuffing and traditional green bean casserole. And how was YOUR holiday?menubanner

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How to Successfully Win at Success

Seems simple enough.

Seems simple enough.

I am an inveterate learner with low self-esteem, which makes me exactly the demographic for which the vast and highly lucrative self-help industry was created. It all started the year of the Christmas Plague, when I cowered in the basement to avoid the contagion that had laid my kin low upstairs. In a dusty corner, I discovered a paperback. It was the granddaddy of all make-yourself-a-better-person manuals, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I read it in one sitting. (Literally one sitting; I didn’t entirely escape the Plague and spent a fair amount of time in the bathroom. TMI?)

I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh darn it - people like me!

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it – people like me!

Now, the fact that 30 years later I don’t have any more friends and am even less successful than I was when I picked up the book might have clued me in that this sort of literature may not be as reliably efficacious as their breathless cover blurbs suggest. Instead, it launched me into a lifelong pattern of buying just about any book whose title starts with those magical words: How to.

Over the years, my bookshelves* became crowded with a dizzying array of these transformative tomes, from How to Write Historical Fiction to How to Deal With Difficult People to How to Kiss (In my defense, I got that one at a garage sale for a dime.) I’ve got manuals for How to Fix Almost Anything, How to Sell What You Create and How to Make Tiny Animals Out of Clay. Apart from that last one, these haven’t made much difference in my life. I do, however, now have a nice collection of tiny, clay animals.

Amazon lists about 2.1 million items with titles that include “how to.” It was perhaps a mistake to conduct this tidbit of research, as I am now painfully aware of the deficit of one million how-to books in my collection (pretty sure I’ve got the .1 covered). Can I really live without the wisdom imparted by How to Hypnotize Anyone? Or How to Make $1,000 a Day on Amazon (as opposed to the $12.38 I currently make per year on Amazon)? Or How to Be Single? (On second thought, I’ve got that one mastered already.)

There are some genuinely intriguing titles out there. One can only imagine the poignancy and gripping suspense of How to Get Rid of Moles: A Personal Journey. And I’ve been fretting over how to broach the thorny topics tackled in How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety and Abstinence, Drugs, Satanism and Other Dangers That Threaten Their Nine Lives.

Most recently I invested in How to Be a Well-Paid Freelance Blogger: Earn $50-$100 a Post and More. It seemed like it might be useful, since so far this blog has earned me $0.00-$0.00 per post (and less). Unfortunately, the very first page informed me that, in order to have a successful blog, I must provide useful content that people need. Well, crap. That’s well beyond my reach. Time, I think, to go to Plan B and place my order for How to Disappear and Start a New Life.

The only kind of personal growth guaranteed to make money - on YouTube.

The only kind of personal growth guaranteed to make money – on YouTube.

Yeah. That’ll work.

*For you whippersnappers out there, “book shelves” were what we had in the Olden Days before literature came from The Cloud in convenient digital form.

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The Write Stuff?

shiningtypewriterHere we are, more than halfway through NaNoWriMo. For those who don’t know, that’s the annual, month-long event that is supposed to stand for Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth). In my case, it quickly devolves into Na(h), I’m No(t) Going to Wri(te) Any Mo(re). Turns out writing a novel is way more work and a lot less satisfying than other worthwhile and equally time-consuming activities like, say, watching pimple-popping videos on YouTube.lisahateswriting

This does create a little problem, however. You see, it’s becoming ever more apparent that I’m never going to make a living by working for a living. So I’ve set all my store on publishing the next Wildly Successful Novel. Stephanie Meyer has made upwards of $125 million off sparkly teenage vampires (which seems excessive, to be honest). Debbie Macomber, a nice housewife from Washington state, churns out a best-selling novel about once a month. (True, it’s essentially the same novel every month, but people want to buy them, so why mess with success?) The Shades of Grey books started out as fanfic, something I know quite a lot about. Admittedly, I know rather less about the money-making theme of those books, sado-masochistic bondage. Thanks for nothing, good Catholic upbringing.

Anyway, with moderately-gifted writers making tons of dough, how hard can it be? My talent is at least a mediocre as any of those ladies. It’s true that my foray into children’s literature was something other than a triumph, though I have accrued a full $12.38 in royalties on my three kiddie books THIS YEAR ALONE.

Last year (or was it the year before?) during NaNoWriMo, I got as far as outlining my epic by chapter, and subsequently fleshed out the plot right up to the point where things finally start to happen. There I (and my heroine) stalled – me figuratively and she literally, sitting in a wagon on a bumpy backwoods trail … going nowhere fast.

My story falls into the “historical romance” genre, though it can be argued I know even less about romance than I do 19th century history. I can at least do research on the latter, which is another convenient way to avoid actual writing. I’ve spent many happy hours scouring the internet for such tidbits as the cost of train fare from St. Paul to Fosston (still don’t know) and what kind of canned goods were available at the local general store in 1898. I’ve even accrued a rudimentary vocabulary in Swedish, the better to relate to my Nordic hero. (Uff da.)

Fun fact: The can opener wasn't invented until 30 years after the first metal cans were produced; the French soldiers who were the first to have the canned rations had to stab them with their bayonets or smash them open on rocks. Evolution proceeds in fits and starts.

Fun fact: The can opener wasn’t invented until 30 years after the first metal cans were produced; the French soldiers who were the first to have the canned rations had to stab them with their bayonets or smash them open on rocks. Evolution proceeds in fits and starts.

Recently, trying to jumpstart my muse, I decided to read some examples of the type of fiction I am attempting to write. I started by rereading Conrad Richter’s The Awakening Land series. This was perhaps an unwise choice, as I wasn’t 10 pages into The Trees before I slammed it down in disgust with a petulant, “Damn it. Why is this so much better than what I’m writing?” Granted, Richter did win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, so I’m setting the bar pretty high. But still.

colbertthetyrant

Yes! Yes! Be my Christian Gray, Stephen Colbert! (Or should I call you Master Colbert?)

So, okay, it’s my lack of discipline that’s holding me back. After a full day of writing about beer bread and cheese balls, I find it hard to sit back down to the computer to write about hardtack and salt pork. And the lure of Dr. Pimple Popper is strong …  I think what I really need is a taskmaster, someone who will crack the whip and tie me to my writing desk for hours at a time. Wait. That’s the plot of Shades of Gray, isn’t it?

If I don’t get my act together and finish this book, I suppose I’ll have to find some other way to secure my financial future. I just read that Dr. Pimple Popper makes about $200,000 a month off views of her YouTube videos. Hm. Maybe I’d better start nurturing that funny red bump on my neck.

Yeah. That’ll work.

 

 

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Miss Kitty Hasn’t Aged Well

I’m back! Did you miss me?

I’d like to report I spent the last several weeks’ hiatus from this blog in a whirlwind, globe-trotting escapade, or engaging in a passionate, all-consuming and ultimately tragic love affaglamorousmeir. But in fact I’ve mostly been lugging lawn furniture into the shed, filling my new trailer with yard waste, raking leaves and standing at the foot of the backyard apple tree, shaking my fist impotently at the bounty of fruit hanging from the topmost, too-high-for-any-ladder branches. (The apples will soon add insult to injury by dropping to the ground after the first snow, there to lie – and rot – until spring. Well played, Mother Nature.)

Since last I blathered on in this space, Halloween has come and gone. This year I dressed as a … wait for it … crazy cat lady. My entry captured second prize in the office contest, runner-up to a team who dressed as one of the company’s signature products, an individual-sized bucket of booze mixer. (With the cruel irony that so often accompanies corporate operations, most of the group was laid off not two weeks later; at least they had the grand prize – a bucket of fun-sized candy bars – as a lovely parting gift.)

ifeelpretty

I’m too sexy for my cat.

I suspect I lost points with the judges based on the fact that I actually AM a crazy cat lady, and therefore my get-up did not technically qualify as a costume. Indeed, it’s safe to predict that I will look EXACTLY like this in 10 years.

My ensemble included a special prop: one of those robot cats they sell for old folks in nursing homes who miss having a real pet to hold and who presumably have forgotten that actual cats don’t make a tinny, mechanical whirring. Apart from that, though, the faux feline is pretty darned convincing. It moves its head, opens and closes its eyes, meows, purrs and even lifts its little paw to its mouth and rolls over for a tummy rub. That it does not subsequently attack the person rubbing its tummy with pointy toes and needle-sharp teeth is what ultimately betrays its artificial nature. A cat who doesn’t bite the hand that pets it is no legitimate cat.

memomhalloween

Mom is trying something different with her hair. I think it works.

At home, we had about the usual crowd of trick-or-treaters, though they skewed a bit older this year. One young candy-seeker actually drove herself around the neighborhood, while another fellow took a photo of my cat-themed pumpkin, declaring, “I’m going to text this to my wife!”pumpkin

I exchanged my cat lady duds for an actual cat costume to hand out candy. While it produced a gratifying terror in my real cats, it turns out that encased in a smelly, sweltering latex cat head is not the most congenial way to spend an evening.

Still, the night was not ALL bad. Due to my meticulous planning (buying one bag of every kind of candy I like at Walgreens), we were left with enough leftovers to maintain the impressive momentum I’ve established in girth-building. Win!

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Of Mouse and Man

runningmouse

Update: The mouse saga continues. Yesterday afternoon, while my older brother (visiting for a few days) sat at the kitchen table with mom, kibitzing, he suddenly noted, “There’s a mouse.”

This was one of the small grays, not the mutant we turned out of the house the other day. It had apparently decided, in the middle of the day, to stroll through the kitchen and slake its thirst at the cat’s water fountain.

greedymouseYou grow too bold, sir.

Though I wasn’t there to witness, I’m told there was quite a scramble, with my brother leaping to his feet (more or less; he has a bad back) and the two cats belatedly feigning indignation at the intrusion. The creature was pursued into my mom’s bedroom, where it disappeared under the bed, followed by both cats. And then …

Peep's attitude toward mouse catching is a little ... lackadaisical.

Peep’s attitude toward mouse catching is a little … lackadaisical.

Nothing happened. That is to say, the cats didn’t catch the mouse and Peep, who seems to be over the whole “my job is to catch vermin” thing, eventually wandered off to nap in his favorite sunny spot in the middle bedroom. Remington, God bless him, maintained a patient vigil, staring intently at the narrow crack between the bottom bureau drawer and the floor.

tomcat mouse trapIt was at about this juncture that I came home from work and got the report. Mom had in the meantime secured a new sort of trap that is purported to be less likely to kill, maim or poison the non-mouse mammals in the household. It’s called the Tomcat Spin Trap. It bears an illustration of a black cat stealthily stalking a rodent in exactly the same way that my cats don’t. The label promises, “Kills quickly. No mess.” Sounds good. Well, not good. But less horrible than other methods.

However, the sole review on the website I consulted about these things stated,

“I set two of these traps over a week ago to catch a mouse in the basement, where I sleep. As of yet, nothing. I have even seen the mouse walk through the little tunnel and hit the boomerang coil– nothing! It could be that it’s because this is a tiny field mouse instead of a bigger sized one & its weight won’t set off the coil, but this product is ineffective, imo.”

Hm. That’s discouraging. On the other hand, it might be entertaining to watch the little guy walk through the tunnel.

Early in the evening, while my bro and I were outside, there was Another Incident. Specifically, Remington finally flushed the mouse out from wherever he was hiding in mom’s bedroom. Mom reports that Remington, ultimately joined by a half-hearted Peep, chased the thing down the hall to my bedroom, where it was stymied by a closed door. So there the pitiful varmint was, literally trapped in a corner with two cats mere inches away. There was no escape.

And yet …

It escaped. This time into the middle bedroom. Both of the cats followed, and mom slammed the door shut behind the trio. She then stuffed towels into the crack at the bottom of the door and waited outside for sounds of carnage from within.

Nopey.

All was deadly silent inside the room. My brother sneaked a peek a couple of times and reported the cats were under the futon, doing nothing at all to justify their continued employment here. At bedtime we finally rousted the cats out and placed ALL of the quick and tidy mouse-killing devices in the room, then pulled the door shut. Sadly, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our nearly 60-year-old house is out of plumb, with the result that no door in the entire place actually latches closed. When the cats were inside the room, this wasn’t a problem; the door opens inward. But now that they were outside, and the mouse (presumably) still within, both Rem and Peep suddenly developed an overpowering determination to Get In There and Kill That Thing.

Some way had to be found to keep them from nosing the door open and letting the mouse escape as they stumbled and blundered around, looking in every direction but where the mouse was. Mom and Kev eventually MacGyvered a set-up consisting of electrical tape stretched from the doorknob to the door frame, the ostensible purpose of which was to hold the door in a closed position. God bless them for trying.

In the morning we found the door pushed open, all the Tomcats untriggered and the cats no longer interested in anything having to do with the middle bedroom. Clearly our foe had escaped again.

As I left for work, I heard my mother express what we’re all feeling by this time. “That damned mouse is smarter than all of us.”

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Crowded House

crowdedhouseThey say over time people and their pets begin to resemble one another. I find it is much the same with people and their houses. At least, both of us having passed the half-century mark, both my home and its owner are rapidly decaying into roughly equivalent states of decrepitude.

Currently the biggest issue for me and said house is that it seems to be becoming increasingly porous. That is to say, it’s starting to let things in. Spiders, flies and box elder bugs, while irksome, are to be expected; even swank homes have to put up with those miniscule pests. But lately we’ve seen an uptick in the number and variety of more sizable wildlife. Last summer I found a chipmunk in the hallway. We have on at least two occasions over the past several years encountered snakes in the basement – an occurrence which, if it gains any kind of regularity, is grounds to knock the house down, burn the rubble and salt the earth beneath it.

Then there was that bat a month ago. That particular invasion was both horrific and costly, necessitating a rabies test that cost me $76 (and cost the bat its head, but we all have to make sacrifices, don’t we?).

This summer, though, is turning out to be the Year of the Mouse. We usually find one limp corpse around the house in the early fall, rousted and raked over by one or the other of the cats. This year, though, we’ve already encountered three homesteaders of the Mus musculus (common house mouse) variety.

Last night was the latest incident. I had just fed the cats their bedtime snack around 10 pm and gone back to editing a fanvid when I observed Peep and Remington walk into the living room in uncharacteristically close proximity, swaggering side by side like a pair of sailors on shore leave. Peep, our champion mouser, was proudly carrying her latest trophy.

“Is that another mouse? Damn it!” I exclaimed, scrambling off my chair and heading for the kitchen to grab a couple of Styrofoam cups to confine it, while my mother scrambled to her bedroom to hide from the beast. Peep, though an avid and skilled hunter, follows a “catch and release” philosophy. She brought her prize to the center of activity in the house, then proudly exclaimed, “Ta da!”

This is almost exactly what happens every time Peep "catches" a mouse.

This is almost exactly what happens every time Peep “catches” a mouse.

This announcement necessitated her opening her mouth and dropping the mouse, of course, and it took advantage of the opportunity to make like Speedy Gonzales* and vamoose. When I returned from the kitchen with my makeshift “live trap,” the cats had already lost track of their adversary and were prowling the living room, sniffing like a pair of bloodhounds. Cats are not bloodhounds. Thus, while they focused their laser attention on the treadmill, I observed the mouse zip from under the Laz-E-Boy to behind the piano. This was a problem, because the piano (an ancient, upright model inherited from my grandparents) is too heavy to move and too close to the wall for the cats to get in and resume their pursuit.

mousebanner

My definition of “night life.”

While the cats stalked around ineffectually, I finished my vid and warily retreated to the sofa to sleep. (Regular readers will recall that I prefer to sleep on the living room couch rather than either of two perfectly good bedrooms at my disposal, for reasons unclear even to myself.) I brought with me my Styrofoam cups and a flashlight. Periodically over the next couple of hours, I’d hear one of the cats make a mad dash in the darkness. I’d bolt upright and flip on my flashlight, casting its light around the room and seeing nothing at all.

Finally, around 2 am, I heard another dash, a thud, and … a squeak.

Flashlight: on. The cats were jostling each other in front of the glider-rocker, trying to get under it a little like Laurel and Hardy trying to cram into an elevator at the same time. As they tussled, I observed the mouse dart literally between them and dive under the swivel rocker a scant three feet from my perch. The clueless cats continued to stalk the empty space under the glider, and I decided to abandon the battlefield in favor of more tranquil lodgings. I set up camp in the middle bedroom and closed the door.

I was awakened about four hours later by sounds of thumping from the living room: not the cats, this time, but my mom, using a broom to turn over the furniture in search of what she hoped would be a very much lifeless rodent. But there was – at least up to the time I left for work – no sign of the creature. The cats seemed to have lost interest at some point and were lounging at opposite ends of the room, supremely indifferent to mom’s anxiety. That’s how cats are.

And the mouse? Something tells me it’s peeking around the corner of the piano, or the davenport or an end table. Giggling.

*Remember when it was considered okay for children’s cartoons to be that racist? Don’t even get me started on Hong Kong Fuey.

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It’s a Jungle Out There

jungle bannerBy mid-August, the garden is tired. So is the gardener. The once-tidy beds (all right, they were never tidy, but they were at least navigable) have degenerated into wilderness, like the moss-covered skyscrapers on that “After We’re All Dead” TV show on the science channel. Actually, left to its own devices, the yard would be in a more presentable state than it is after my meddling. When my folks built the place in 1960, the lot was native sod. Given its druthers, my little patch of ground would happily revert to a prairie landscape. Even now Mother Nature tries to sneak in a few specimens of cocklebur and quack grass among the more exotic varieties of weeds introduced through horticulture and bird poop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dahlias

Both the dahlias and gladiolas are in full glory at the moment – an occasion both for joy and foreboding, for while they are among the most spectacular blooms of the season, they are also among the last. Their appearance is a harbinger of things to come … and those things are mostly cold and white and require a shovel to remove them.

The brevity of a Minnesota summer makes it all the more precious. It’s partly for that reason that I tend to slack off on the weeding around this time. After two months of toil, it is time to reap the harvest: in my case, not produce but the abundance of beauty as my gardens reach their triumphant climax. If a garden were a fireworks display, now would be the moment the marching band enters playing “Stars & Stripes Forever” amid a cacophony of erupting Roman candles.

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To enjoy the August garden, bring a pith helmet and machete

Tragically, I am not able to fully enjoy the Big Finish this year. A week ago I brought a book out to the rose garden, currently experiencing a fresh flush of beauty. I sat on the small bench there, in peaceful contentment, listening to the small, chirping birds, the sigh of the breeze and the incessant beep-beeping of the trio of anti-snake death sticks I installed earlier this summer. Coincidentally, it was at the very moment that I was reflecting on how damned irritating those beeps are when I spied something under the floribunda directly across from me.

A head.

omg

Well, at least I don’t have platypuses. Thanks, Amazon Prime!

It wasn’t a human head; that would have been okay … or at least less NOT okay than the wedge-shaped, beady-eyed, forked-tongue-flicking horror a scant two feet away. It was a snake, of course, curled up around the base of the rose bush, apparently attracted by the alluring concert of electronic beeps around it.

At least, I thought as my blood curdled in my veins, it is a small one. The head was about the size of the last segment of my index finger. However, as I allowed my gaze to travel from that head all along the ropes and coils of its body, I realized the rest of this thing was freakin’ huge. Assuming it was the same villain who prompted the purchase of the in-retrospect -wildly-overpriced anti-snake sticks, it was apparent that it had officially crossed that important threshold between “snake” and “serpent.”

I have a friend who worked in an office complex converted from an old hospital. Alone there one Sunday afternoon, she stepped out of the office to find a nurse standing in the hallway about halfway between my friend and the only exit.

A semi-transparent nurse.

My own predicament that moment in the garden was somewhat similar, except the nightmarish apparition that occupied the space between me and safety was a) not dead and b) failed to vanish into nothingness when it saw me looking at it. It just flicked its tongue and stared back at me.

Frankly, I think my friend got the better deal.

To make my egress through the narrow (and, one has to assume, snake-infested) arbor, I had to sidle past my enemy, literally within inches of that coiled form. It was important to make my escape stealthily, so as not to startle the creature into making a leaping attack at my ankles (I’m pretty sure they do that) or worse, slithering off into the larger garden beyond. There it would find an infinity of leafy undergrowth in which to … lurk.

Contorting my considerable bulk through a series of Ninja moves that would have won the top prize on “America’s Most Humiliating Home Videos,” I managed to elude the predator and escape, screaming, into the relative safety of the grassy backyard. I haven’t been back since.

And so, the dahlias are badly in need of dead-heading, the burgeoning mums are lost in a sea of pigweed and the unfettered grapevines have crept over the garden and are plotting to creep through my bedroom window and strangle me in my sleep. Meanwhile, I am confined to the margins of the green zones, pacing like a tiger in a cage, wondering what I’m missing.

For a hot minute I allowed myself to hope that my snake encounter was an isolated incident. Perhaps my tormentor was merely a tourist, passing through on his way from the farm fields south of town to the very snake-congenial swampy morass that backs the properties across the road. But yesterday I heard the back neighbor suddenly cry out, “There’s another one! Stay away from it, kids!”

snakepursuit

My conception of the block party this coming weekend.

It’s possible he was talking about a rare breed of fanged, rabid baby bunny, but it seems more likely he had stumbled on something with far fewer legs than a rabbit. Moreover, his use of the word “another” suggests this was in no way the first such encounter he’d had. The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that 1) the neighborhood is teeming with these things and, by extension, 2) we can expect a snakenado of writhing reptiles to drop from the treetops AT ANY MOMENT.

flyingsnake

Yes, flying snakes are A THING.

Someone at work noted that this is “a bad year for snakes.” On the contrary, I’d say it’s a pretty damned awesome year for snakes, what with the abundant moisture creating a never-ending buffet of slugs, mosquitoes and tadpoles on which the reptiles can feast … and grow. It is, conversely, a very bad year indeed for anybody who hates snakes as much as I do.

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Something to look forward to.

In a month or so, after the first hard frost has turned the dahlias black and the daylilies to mush, the snakes will creep into their burrows to wait out the winter. If the cold season is relatively mild, as it was last year, they’ll be back in greater numbers in the spring. For the first time in my life, I’m praying for a cold, hard winter. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

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They say there’s no going back. This is not actually true; often you can indeed go back, literally if not metaphorically. I did so myself this week when I revisited scenes from my youth during a quick overnight junket to northern Minnesota.

I had taken three days off last week, intending to have a writing retreat, and had casually thrown out the possibility of motoring north to Itasca and pitching my pup tent under the pines. However, studies have conclusively proven that a lone woman in a crowded, well-patrolled state park has a 100% chance of being killed by a serial killer. At least, that’s how my mother heard it. She proposed an alternative scenario: the same journey under the protection of her burly 89-year-old self, substituting a clean and comfortable hotel room for the pup tent. Having recently seen her go medieval on an errant bat with a broom, I was afraid to decline.

I made the 128-mile trek from Osakis to Bemidji many times while a student at Bemidji State University (Go, Beavers!). Thus it was with full confidence that I turned my little red Kia onto the first of a maze of back country roads that had shortened the distance when I was an undergraduate. “You do have a map in the glove compartment, don’t you?” my mother gently inquired. I scoffed.

Fifteen minutes from home we were lost. It’s possible the layout of the roads has changed in the quarter century since I last went this way. More likely, the steep cognitive decline that is said to commence at age 50 has already erased my memory of the way north. I bluffed certainty in our route until we stumbled upon the little town of Parkers Prairie. There a sign helpfully pointed us to Highway 29 and Wadena. I was back on firm ground, navigationally speaking.

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We are two wild and crazy gals.

Our first stop on the way was in Menahga and the impressive monument to St. Urho. For those who don’t know (and that would be almost everyone), St. Urho was the brave hero who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland. Or so the legend goes – a legend, by the way, entirely concocted by a professor of history at Bemidji State University and adopted, inexplicably, by the good citizens of Menahga (most of whom presumably claim Finnish descent, if not a strong knowledge of their motherland’s history). In addition to being home to the shrine of St. Urho, Menahga also designates itself the Gateway to the Pines.sturho

From time immemorial it was here that the central plains gave way to the vast pine forests that once covered the northern half of my home state. Today, much of the land between Menahga and Park Rapids is turned to farming and the “pines” consist of narrow bands of firs lining the highway. Actually, since the branches of the trees facing the high-wire lines have been trimmed off by the utilities company, even these are only half-pines. Such is progress.

It is at Park Rapids that one begins to feel you are truly entering the woods. I turned off 71 to take the Lake George road. Back in the day, this was a rather narrow, winding trail through the forest, with trees crowding close up against the road, and it was awesome. These days it’s a newly repaved two-lane highway. Not so scenic, but still worth the drive. As mom pointed out about the time we hit Emmaville (a miniscule settlement most notable for the large sign that loudly proclaims, “Oops! You just missed Emmaville!” when you fail to discern the place itself), taking the Lake George Road meant we had to backtrack to get to our destination, Itasca State Park. No matter. It’s a beautiful drive.

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Welcome to Itasca State Park

We entered the park at the east entrance. It’s a testament to the enduring belief in “Minnesota nice” that the entrance was unmanned; visitors are directed to tuck a $5 bill into an envelope and drop it in a slot. We did.

A large storm had raged through the north country a week before our arrival, and the park showed the marks of its passage in the form of many downed trees. I couldn’t help wondering how capricious Mother Nature chooses her victims. We passed many stands of apparently dead trees that still stood firm, while enormous red and white pines that one might expect to withstand the Final Reckoning lay twisted and jack-knifed beside the road.

We took the 10-mile Wildlife Loop and, as always, saw no wildlife. It did bring to mind an occasion when my niece Amy and I rented bicycles in the park, thinking to take a relaxing ride, and ended up half-dead after several miles of mostly hills.

Immediately after turning off the Wildlife Loop, a white-tailed deer sauntered out in front of the car.

ourtentItasca State Park figures large in my childhood memory, as it was a favorite place to camp for my family. We are camping people. Long after glossy, silver Airstreams began taking over the parks, my people continued to erect our blue-and-yellow tent. My parents camped on their honeymoon, and had I ever found a mate, that would have been my choice, too. I was introduced early to this form of recreation; my parents brought a portable cradle with them to the campground when I was still an infant. I can’t imagine my frugal folks spending good money on anything else with such a limited use and lifespan, which is evidence of the central role camping played in our lives.

We maintained a safe distance from the raging torrent.

We maintained a safe distance from the raging torrent.

We made the obligatory stop at the Headwaters of the Mississippi (which apparently isn’t). Both mom and I decided that scrambling across the slippery rocks was a broken hip waiting to happen. This is what it is to be old.

Faux Cabin

Thence down the road to the Pioneer Cabin, which is actually a Pioneer Cabin Reconstruction. The original cabin lies in an unrecognizable heap next to the spiffy fake. Nevertheless, I took many photos of the cabin and adjacent lumber sledge, both of which 19th century props figure largely in my novel-in-progress. (For those keeping track, my heroine is still sitting in a wagon somewhere on the Fosston trail, where she has languished since February. I sure hope them there canned preserves and salted meat she bought at the general store hold out until I get back to her in the fall, or I may find a bloated corpse where I left a lively girl. Then my novel becomes about zombies.)

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Native American cemetery in its natural state.

A brief stop at the Indian Mounds illustrated how much times have changed. As a small child, I distinctly remember running up and over the neatly mowed mounds that resembled well-tended golfing greens. I hope at least my parents chided me for desecrating a grave, but I think in those days people didn’t connect such artifacts with the real people who made them.  I visited the mounds again when I was in college and found them overgrown with weeds and enclosed in a high fence. This was more culturally sensitive, perhaps, but gave the uncomfortable impression that the deceased were imprisoned. Given the history of white-native relations in the state, this was a bit awkward. On this trip, I found the entire area of the mounds enclosed in an attractive wooden fence. Inside, the native burial ground was so overgrown with trees, shrubs and other vegetation as to be unrecognizable. Presumably there are mounds within, but you’d never know it.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center. Mary was the first female park commissioner. She had but a brief tenure; after upholding her mandate to protect the park by defying a logging company’s attempt to flood the park, she was demoted at the insistence of the politically powerful lumber industry, and subsequently resigned in protest. Good on ya, Mary!

I had a few of these paleface natives

I had a few of these paleface natives

Made by hand using traditional techniques honed over centuries.

Handmade by native artisans using traditional techniques honed over centuries.

We perused the gift shop only long enough for me to note another change from my youth. The “trading post” used to feature the kind of tacky, culturally insensitive trinkets that would cause mass demonstrations today. This was back when the local indigenous peoples were still called Chippewa and Sioux (an Ojibwe word that apparently translates roughly as “those bastards on the other side of the woods”), instead of Ojibwe and Lakota. I recall toy peace pipes (a wooden dowel painted black with a feather hung from one end), and we always went home with at least one “Indian drum,” which consisted of a piece of rubber stretched over a brightly colored tin can; occasionally I left clutching an Indian maiden doll. As I recall, they looked very much like myself, a little white girl, but had braids and wore a dress made of fringed suede. Educational!

With the afternoon waning, it was time to leave the scene of my childhood recreation and proceed to a place that recalls slightly more recent memories. On to Bemidji!

To be continued …

 

 

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A Very Little War

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A kidnapping in progress

We live in turbulent times. I was reminded last night that, even on the smallest scale, Mother Nature produces no peaceable kingdoms. While strolling through my rose garden, I became aware of a kind of seething movement beneath my feet. Looking down, I observed masses of large, red ants clambering over the pebble path. Large numbers were proceeding, with regimental precision, from a point beneath one of the shrub roses. Each of these held aloft a white egg case (technically a pupa, I guess). At the same time as these single-file rows of pupa-bearers streamed away from the point of origin, an equal number of unencumbered ants were marauding back in the direction of what I discovered to be a black carpenter ant colony under the shrub.

Fascinated, I watched the red raiders swarm the various entrance holes of the black anthill and emerge with their cylindrical spoils. I would have felt bad for the black ants, but they didn’t put up much of a fight, to be honest. Outnumbered and undersized, the adult inhabitants of the colony had fled the mound, taking refuge among the foliage of the bush, where they paced restlessly, watching the carnage below. Such immediate capitulation does not command respect.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

I followed the red ants as far as I could, across the full length of the rose garden and over the plastic border of the path into the deep foliage beyond. It occurred to me that, in the context of the scale of these determined creatures, the distance they covered from their victims’ fortress to their own is the equivalent of many miles for a human. Moreover, the four-inch path border they surmounted must be an Everest for them. Yet not a one faltered or deviated from its course. They proceeded with steely determination, and no jagged chunk of rock, inconveniently rooted thistle or giant sandaled shoe would deter them. (After the first half dozen crept over my toes, I got the hell out of their way.)

Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that the red ants were likely formica sanguinea, the blood-red ant. This is a slave-making species, which means they raid other ants’ nests and – you guessed it – kidnap the pupae from the brood chamber. They take them back to their own lair, where they hatch and become slave workers for their oppressive overlords. Geez, and those antz from the cartoon seemed like such nice guys.

Don't be fooled by their friendly demeanor.

Don’t be fooled by their friendly demeanor.

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And you think YOU’RE having a bad day

The insect world is full of this kind of weird stuff. One summer I discovered a caterpillar on the grape vines that looked like it had grown spikes all over its body. Nope. Turns out the “spikes” were the pupae of some kind of wasp that eats the caterpillar from the inside out. Other parasites are able to turn their host bugs into zombies, controlling what they eat and how they behave. There’s a species that causes the caterpillar they infect to become the invader’s bodyguard, violently fighting off predators of the cocoons, even though the caterpillar-defender is destined be consumed by the baby wasps as soon as they hatch. Talk about ungrateful!

There’s even a parasite that causes its host – an ant, ironically – effectively to commit suicide by climbing to the top of a long blade of grass, the better to be eaten by a cow; the parasite needs to reside a while in a cow’s gullet as part of its life cycle. (There was no data on what sordid things they make the cows do.)

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

Fortunately for us higher orders, our brains have evolved beyond the point of being influenced by parasitic Svengalis*. Oh, sure, scientists have made some crazy claims that the parasite T. gondii, which disseminates itself through cat feces and has thereby infected a third of the world’s population with toxoplasmosis, is able to exert subtle control over its human hosts. The theory seems to be that, since infection by T. gondii has been shown to make rodents unafraid of, and even attracted to, cats – their natural predator – it follows that the nasty little beggars can also make us humans overly fond of and ultimately in thrall to our feline life partners.

What nonsense! In fact, I’d offer a mountain of conclusive proof that this isn’t true … but I suddenly feel compelled to go buy a case of Fancy Feast.

 

 

*Svengali is a character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel, Trilby. The character holds an uncanny hypnotic power over his protégé. She is a singer, not an ant.

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Breaking Bat

BreakingBat

It was a dark and stormy night …

No, it really was. Last Saturday we had the first real thunderstorm of the season after a hot and muggy day. Around midnight I was lying on the couch with fans blowing on me (no central AC) and watching the flicker of frequent lightning outside. There was a rustling in the sheer curtains behind my makeshift bed, and I reached up in the darkness to pet whichever cat had taken up residence on the back of the sofa.

It wasn’t a cat.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything under the palm that reached out to stroke thin air – but I did feel an abrupt scratch across the back of my hand. “That’s weird,” I thought. Then, in the next flash of electricity through the windows I saw something above my head.

Circling the ceiling fan. Swooping. Flapping.

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.You know the sound a bat makes, that ultra-high squeak that could shatter glass? That’s the sound *I* made when I realized what I had been trying to cuddle. The flash lasted just an instant, and then the room was in darkness again. I lunged for the afghan to cover myself with. Another flash, accompanied by a glimpse of the creature fluttering away in the direction of the kitchen, pursued by a dark shadow underneath it: one of the cats.

Darkness.

Flash! (No sign of the beast.)

Darkness.

The switch for the overnight light was at the opposite end of the room, so I wrapped myself in the afghan and sprinted to it. I flooded the living room with blessed light. Then the kitchen. The hall. Both unoccupied bedrooms (my mother slept through this whole event). Every room in the basement.

Nothin’.

I snagged a flashlight and crept back to the couch, flipping off lights behind me. The rest of the night I lay awake, thinking about that possibly rabid bat lurking somewhere. Thinking about that scratch on the back of my hand.

Around 6 am my mother arose and came into the living room to watch her morning shows. I staggered off to the bedroom to try to get a few winks, tossing over my shoulder, “Unless I was hallucinating, there’s a bat in the house.”

Some time later I was awakened by an inhuman shriek. Nope, not the bat. My mom. I raced to the living room to find her 89-year-old self in the middle of the room, a broom raised high over her head. Something brown flopping around at her feet.

Whack! The wounded creature eluded her and sought refuge under the glider chair. My mother retreated to a safe distance while I fetched a plastic container and captured the intruder therein.

Okay, here’s where it gets bad. I have this injured, but still quite lively bat trapped in a Tupperware container. Ordinarily, since I am a live-and-let-live kind of gal, I’d just release the thing outside and wish it well.

But here’s the thing: I had physical contact with this bat. True, the scratch was barely perceptible and I couldn’t find any puncture marks to suggest I’d actually been bitten by the thing. Statistically, the odds I might get rabies from this poor little critter were infinitesimally small.

However, if DID get rabies, my odds of dying of it were 100%*. Now, I’m not much good at math, but that seems high to me.

feel lucky

Hasty research online presented me with two options: Have the bat tested for rabies, or have a series of prophylactic shots to protect me in the unlikely event that I was exposed to the deadly virus. I don’t much like shots. I also don’t much like the $8,000-$10,000 price tag for the treatment.

I pondered my health savings account balance, already likely to be zeroed out by the series of mammograms and ultrasound tests I’d had only days before.

It was Sunday morning. There were no veterinary clinics open. I called the emergency vet line, and was told to refrigerate the specimen and bring it in on Monday morning for testing.

I looked at the bat, crawling in restless circles around the bottom of the plastic bucket. I had no idea how to euthanize it humanely without damaging the head (needed for the testing).

Quietly I put the container in the downstairs refrigerator and closed the door.

You hate me now; I hate myself. My hope was that the bat would just get colder and colder and finally go to sleep and die, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Let me believe that’s what happened.

On Monday morning I carried the well-chilled container into my vet’s office to be express mailed to the Twin Cities for testing. I did not look to see how – or whether – the thing had died. “When there’s human contact, they usually turn these around pretty quickly,” the vet tech assured me. “The lab will contact your doctor directly. You should hear something in a day or so.”

Oh, and by the way, “There’s a $76 fee to send it in.”

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.I spent the first half hour of that day-or-so on the Internet, systematically making my way through the 435,000 results of Googling “bats and rabies.” Every single one of them promised that rabies could be avoided if treatment was started within 24 hours of contact.

Well, crap. It had already been 36 hours. I had taken the precaution of emailing my doctor’s office the night before, inquiring whether it was safe to wait until results came back on the bat, or whether I should begin the shots as a precaution. I didn’t hear from the doctor on Monday.

I didn’t hear from the doctor on Tuesday. Or the testing lab. I called the doctor’s office. Chipper voice mail greeting: “We’re all out of the office today! Leave a message!” I left a message. I called the switchboard. “Is there someone else I can talk to?” I asked. “The internet says I’m going to die if I don’t get shots.” I was put on hold. A minute later the switchboard operator came back on and said the on-call doctor would be in touch.

I didn’t hear from the on-call doctor. I started to panic.

Admittedly, given that only about 6% of bats test positive for rabies, my level of anxiety was perhaps overblown. But by a morbid coincidence, I have always had a special fascination with and horror of this disease. I think it dates to seeing “Old Yeller” when I was really small. And “Cujo.” And that one episode of “House.” In any case, I have developed a dangerous amount of informed ignorance on the subject of hydrophobia, as it used to be called. I even read a book on it during my vacation. (I also read a book on syphilis, but I was less worried about contracting that.)

In the 19th century, there was some debate about whether rabies even existed as a real malady, despite the rather regular newspaper reports of people dying of it. Historical treatments for the disease have included drinking a beverage made from the skull of a hanged man, wrapping with a poultice made from cloth and hyena skin, cauterization of the wound with a heated key, and the remedy popular right up until Pasteur developed his vaccine: the application of a “mad stone” to the bite. This was a stone or, preferably, a hair ball from the stomach of a deer (available from Sears-Roebuck, presumably), boiled in milk and placed over the wound. If the stone stuck to the skin, it signified the presence of rabies, and the stone was said to draw out the poison.

Mad stone … or mad chocolate chip cookie?

I have my doubts about the efficacy of these cures.

On Wednesday, I heard nothing from my doctor, the lab, or the vet’s office. I emailed the vet. I emailed the doctor again.

Wednesday evening I had a terse response from the vet’s office: “We’ll let you know when we hear something.” And an indifferent reply from my doctor: “Let me know when you hear something.”

I began foaming at the mouth – from frustration, not rabies. However, I was sure I felt some burning at the potential site of the infection, and was a little nauseous. The first signs!

Granted, it generally takes months for rabies symptoms to appear in an infected person. But I’ve always been an overachiever.

Thursday came and mostly went. At 4:10 pm, I had a call from the vet’s office. “Test came back negative.”

Great. So the poor bat died (Peacefully! Let me pretend it was peacefully!) for nothing.

If there as an afterlife for myotis lucifugus, the little brown bat, my victim will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his home invasion cost me $76 and a helluva lot of stress. And though I am no longer worried about dying of rabies, I still have one other bat-borne condition to fret over.

There's a vaccine for this, right?

There’s a vaccine for this, right?

Hear that twittering sound? It’s the bat ghost. Giggling.

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