Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Summing It Up Nicely

Icicles. It has icicles.
Yesterday my old office working group invited me to their Christmas party, which is one of the best afternoons of the year. These folks work hard, and when they party--well, let's just say I build in a couple of hours of decompression-from-laughing time after each party.

This year the new boss brought gingerbread house kits and each of the six of us decorated a house. And because we are who we are (Americans) we couldn't just decorate a house for the sake of decoration, we made it a competition. The chef at the restaurant would decide the winner.

Now, there is a crucial fact that should be known about the make-up of this group: Four of them are artists of some kind. One graphic designer, one videographer, one web designer, and one boss/photographer/graphics person. Two of us were writers. I believe the other writer would not take offense when I say that our design skills are the equivalent of whatever babies do when they smear strained peas around on their high chair trays--good-natured and enthusiastic, but woefully inept. Woefully. Also requiring much clean-up afterwards.

So I was a little shocked when my gingerbread house began to look as if it had some intentionality to it. I've decorated enough birthday cakes (ineptly) that I know how a decorating tip works, so I fixed the house to the base with some scallops. Then I piped shingles, and cut fir trees out of green fondant, and holy cow, this was looking halfway decent! And then, because just the night before I had watched Mary Berry add pizzazz to her gingerbread house (oh, Great British Baking Show, how I love thee) I dragged some icicles off the roof.

Those icicles, I am not ashamed to say, were the bomb. They added a touch of authenticity, a of fleeting poke of memory muscle that spoke of winter and hot chocolate and peering out of frosted windows.

All of the designers, meanwhile, were bemoaning their medium. The walls wouldn't stay together, they whined. The icing was too thick, they moaned. This is terrrrrible, they muttered. This is looking sooo stoooooopid, they whinged. Your icicles are the bomb, they said, as they stealthily piped perfectly-shaped messages onto the roofs and broke miniature candy canes into chimney tiles. Wow, look at those icicles, they said, sprinkling their own creations with perfectly placed snow sugar.

And the other writer? Well, I hate to besmirch the talents of my fellow writers, but ha! His house had collapsed within the first five minutes so he just slathered it with icing, slapped a gingerbread onto one side, and made his way over to the appetizer plate.

Finally all of the houses were done and lined up on the next table. My heart was pounding. This calendar year not been my favorite. Could it...would it...might it finally be...might icicles be the magic ingredient that would redeem 2016?

And then the chef pointed to a house. A writer had won. The wrong writer.

"This is a skating rink, right?" the waitress backed up the choice. "That's really clever!"

The winner. 
Stupid 2016. You were a stupid year.

Friday, December 9, 2016

What My Father Taught Me

My father and my first-born. 
How to drive a stick shift.

The importance of being present at funerals.

That hard work matters.

What a good husband and father looks like.

That you owe your community more than just paying your taxes.

That I'm more beautiful than I think I am.

To respect authority, and that if I got in trouble in school I could expect trouble at home.

To carry a handkerchief, in case you have a daughter who cries.

That getting along with siblings is a skill to be learned when you're young and a joy when you are old.

That a B is okay if that's the best I can do, but really, I'm capable of A work.

That keeping your word matters.

How to castrate a pig.

That you never get over being proud of your children, and being scared for them, and wanting them to be happy.

That a person can swear a blue streak without uttering a single four-letter word.

How lucky I was to be taking piano lessons when I was young, because he would have given anything to have the PRIVILEGE of practicing when he would rather have been blah-di-blah-di-blah.

That faith, true faith, is not the same as church attendance, but that church attendance is important, too.

That my short toes aren't a disfiguring handicap.

That fourth-grade boys act out crushes in some weird ways.

That love never faileth, and the greatest of these is love.

I've written here often about my dad, about his Dust Bowl childhood and his Navy service, about how he has been a role model for how to leave the world better than you found it and how he continues to compete even though his life hasn't been without some of the cruddy cards the universe occasionally deals.

Tomorrow is Dad's 90th birthday. We'll eat cake and greet people whose lives Dad has touched over the years. We'll look at pictures from his first nine decades and talk about how he's influenced us, but there isn't nearly enough time to list all the ways my father has influenced my life, and how deeply I love him.

Just like Boy#1 watching the best way to start a fire in the fireplace, from the time I was a toddler I've been peering over his shoulder to learn the very best way to do things, the best way to live my life.

Happy birthday, Dad. I'll never stop learning from you, and loving you always.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Our New Family Motto

Guest Tuba Player
Normally the two days following Thanksgiving are made up of equal parts leftovers and lethargy. We sit in our individual tryptophan comas, maybe bestirring ourselves to get up for another piece of pie, but with very little planned activity. This year was different.

Boy#3 is the band director in a small-ish town a couple of hours away. This year that town's football team achieved the Holy Grail of small Kansas towns--state high school football championships. And if you are shaking your head in disbelief at that description rather than nodding in recognition, you obviously are not from Kansas.

Anyway, there cannot possibly be a state football championship without a marching band cheering on its team. As a result, while the rest of us were rhetorically asking if we were out of aerosol whipped cream, Three was back on the road to his home so that he could herd his band onto the bus bright and early the next morning. Sadly, though, some parents make Thanksgiving week plans without taking into account that their low brass player might be needed for the marching band at the state championship game so there were gaps in the instrumentation. (I know! What were they thinking?)

Enter Boy #2. He had been a band geek all the way through college and still can out-oompah most high school tuba players, so Three asked if he would be willing to provide a bass line at the game. He was, and the entire family became groupies for the day, sitting three rows behind the band to cheer them on.

It could not have been more fun. As you can tell by the clouds in the picture above, it was a spectacularly beautiful day that was not too hot, not too cold, but just right. The Fighting Greenbacks (Nope. Not even kidding.) were in control of the game from the opening drive so there was no nailbiting about who was going to win. And high school football game hot dogs are perhaps the only food more delicious than Thanksgiving leftovers. (Again, not kidding.)

The best moment of the day, though, came when Three was back in school on Monday talking to one of his eighth-grade students.

"Mr. W.," the student told Three, "I was sitting right behind the band, and I saw that tuba player and thought 'That must be Mr. W.'s brother.' Then I looked the other way and the exact same guy was coming up the steps and I thought, 'That must be Mr. W.'s brother.' Then I looked in front of me, and thought, 'Oh, there's Mr. W.' And then I looked behind me and thought, 'That must be Mr. W.'s brother.'"

Then, Three told us later, the eighth-grader shook his head in bewilderment.

"So many W.'s!"

His confusion is understandable. The Boys have always looked like two sets of twins (One and Three, Two and Four). Add matching hoodies and glasses and the distinction is almost impossible to the untrained eye.

Also, I've had that sentiment hundreds of times over the past 33 years so I'm declaring it our new family motto.

So Many W's!

Two, Four, Three, One

Monday, December 5, 2016

Still the Best

2016 Thanksgiving

I knew it! I knew all of you wanted to know what the busy rakers in the last post looked like from the front. And because I am a giver (a THANKS-giver! Ha ha ha!), here they are!

Here are the Boys, plus Lovely Girl, plus a bonus Special Girl, plus Husband, plus a very, very disheveled-looking MomQueenBee. This is what happens when pictures aren't taken until just before everyone leaves, when I am limp with relief that the food was ready to eat at the proper time, and that no one got sick, and that this was the BEST Best Day of the Year.

Because it was.

In spite of the frizzy hair and flushed cheeks as I faced the camera, I couldn't stop smiling. I know how very rare it is to have all of us together, and how the rarity of these moments is only going to increase. And so I made a conscious effort to be mindful of the joy of the Thanksgiving week.

I cherished having all of the leaves in the table for four full days, and picking up another gallon of milk every time I was in the store (and I was in the store every day).

I loved seeing our grown-up kids get along, and I wanted to time-travel back and tell myself as Mother of Teenagers Who Fight All. The. Time. that they're going to turn out fine, even if they never outgrow being cutthroat board game players, because someday they finally will be able to lose with (mostly) good humor.

I marveled at having so many girls in the house. We could almost outvote the boys, if one or two of the guys were off taking naps. I mean no disrespect to the men in my life, because my love for them is deeper than the ocean and wider than our new president's credibility gap, but I have learned that I am a complete sexist when it comes to entertainment preps. On the night before we hosted 35 for Thanksgiving dinner, the Girls organized set-up and decoration of the eating space while I made roll dough. It's not that the Boys and Husband wouldn't have been delighted to do that set-up (they were enthusiastic members of the crew), but I seem to have more innate trust in the outcome when the supervisors have Pinterest boards.

I basked in having friends give thanks with us who had never been at our annual feast before. The grown children of my father's lovely wife; my Saudi Arabian student T and his family, which included a 40-day old baby. (I laughed and laughed when, having tasted at least a dozen Thanksgiving-only delicacies, T. declared his favorite was "the one with the crunchy stuff on top." Yup, good ol' Green Bean Casserole.)

The day was not perfect. We missed Much Older Sister and her family, who were on pins and needles awaiting the arrival of an overdue grandchild. And of course, no Thanksgiving will ever be perfect because Mom won't be making the rolls.

But this? This was as close to perfection as we'll get this side of heaven.

This day is still the best.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks

They're home. They're raking. Life is good.
Yesterday at WalMart three different people greeted me this way:

“It’s almost your favorite day of the year!”

And they were right. Thanksgiving is the best holiday, my favorite on-the-calendar rotation of the earth. But it occurred to me that I’ve never said in this space specifically what I’m thankful for in any given year. This year I am remedying that situation.

This year I’m thankful life still has the capacity to surprise me.

Think about it for a moment. What most of us assume we want in life is predictability, that we will accomplish the age-appropriate milestones without drama, that we will finish our education and find good mates and good jobs, that we will have happy families and move into retirement and die in our sleep.

This year life has surprised me. The railway of life between “good job” and “move into retirement” took a completely unexpected and spectacular detour just when the station was coming in sight. I spent the summer saying “I’m okay—I’m okay—I’m okay” to everyone who asked, but really, I wasn’t. 

Looking back, I was demoralized and humiliated and depressed. And the worst part was that the change in the route seemed to have taken my words away: My writing mojo was gone. 

Today, though, I’ve climbed out of that pile of rubble and guess what? I’m okay.

I’m better than okay. I’m writing again, and thinking “Oh, I need to blog that” when something makes me laugh. I’m sleeping well. I’m basking in being able to watch leaves turn outside the window of my home office. I love the college class I’m teaching, and the free-lance work I’m doing for other publications. My kitchen floors are clean. (Yes, that’s a big deal.) My children are all here for Thanksgiving, and I am verklempt with joy.

I look with grateful amazement at the people who pulled me back onto the track: My family (who not only loved and comforted me, but continue to serve as my anger surrogates because I can’t heal myself while I’m angry), my friends (who know me and pray), dozens of Small Towners (who hugged me and were indignant), my readers (who encourage me every time I post).

This is not the way I would have planned for this year to go, this interruption in the plan, but this is life. Life still has the capacity to surprise me, and life’s blessings can come out of letting go of the plan.

For this, Dear God, I am thankful. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

It's My Party, I'll Be Cranky If I Want To

Because the internet doesn't have enough elderly women wearing sparkly headbands

Wednesday, as Facebook kindly reminded all of my family and friends, was my birthday. And because I have the absolute best family and friends in the world (seriously, I would put them up against Mother Teresa's family and friends) everyone wanted to make sure I was having a great day.

Happy birthday! Happy, happy birthday! Happy, happy, happy birthday!

Every few seconds my notification chime would assure me that someone was hoping I was happy, and while I was truly appreciating the sentiment, I was not happy.

I woke up in A Mood, one of those weepy, foreboding funks that can strike even if it's not your birthday. And the funk plunged into a positive abyss when I found out seconds after I got up that my father was in the hospital after a freak mishap that resulted in use of both an ambulance and a blood-catching bucket. (He's fine now, thank You, God, and giving kudos to my rock star youngest brother for emergency action.)

So I started the day off jangling and jittery, and just couldn't seem to snap out of it. My lovely family and friends were reminding me how very, very blessed I am, but at one point during my birthday lunch with my best friend from adulthood I BURST into tears in one of those restaurant-clearing moments that embarrasses everyone within sniffle range.

Since it was Wednesday I played the piano that evening for the kids club at church, and when I walked in the door they all turned around and sang "Happy Birthday" to me, and I cried. Again.

And all four of my wonderful Boys called (one of them texted and called twice, because the first time he called he forgot to wish me Happy Birthday). After each of these calls I...well, you're already seeing the theme.

But do you know what? Yesterday morning I woke up and the funk had lifted. I re-read all of the Facebook greetings and smiled until my face hurt. And then I went to get the mail and my Much Younger Sister had sent me a card that not only assured me "You're cool! So cool! So cool you really RULE!" but also included a sparkly headband! Squeeeee!

As you can tell from today's picture, this headband may have been intended for a six-year-old rather than for someone 10 times that old (Oh, all right. Ten times plus two.) who has an abnormally large head. Also, it probably wasn't intended to be put onto hair that has just come from being cut, because while I love my barber to distraction she puts much more effort into my styling than I do and when I leave her chair I always think that somewhere Dolly Parton is nodding approvingly.

Last night Husband brought me a brownie and chocolate ice cream, then I re-read my cards and the Facebook posts again and oh, my. I do have the best family and friends ever. Ever, ever.

I officially declare that yesterday was my birthday, rather than Wednesday. It was my birthday, and it was spectacular. Because I'm cool, so cool, so cool I really rule.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

So Much Better

This is not at all the picture I planned to use for my blog post today. 

No, I had planned to use one I texted to Husband last night. It was a screen shot of my computer, frozen with a pop-up box that began this way...
Dear Cox Communications inc. customer, 
Your IP has been blocked! A serious malfunction has been detected...

...and it continued in the same positive vein. I knew this probably was not from Cox (even though I'm not always happy with our internet provider and have their number on my speed dial, they at least know to capitalize "Inc.") so I did not call the toll-free number for how to correct the problem.

It was not a happy moment, and it became not happier as I realized the pop-up box was non-closable, and that what I had thought was normal slowing-down of my computer because of high post-election traffic might actually be DOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!  My not happier mood continued when I called the computer ninjas at work and they off-handedly told me that "Yeah, you probably have a virus so run a scan and if it comes back negative we'll wipe your hard drive." 

Say what again? If it comes back NEGATIVE you wipe the hard drive? Why, yes, ma'am! Because that means the scan hasn't detected anything which means that the something that is causing the problem is so terrible that DOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!

I ran the scan and nothing was detected and I sobbed.  But then Husband suggested that instead of putting this in the hand of the computer ninjas at work (who are, after all, student hires who may or may not have had extensive experience with this particular issue) we give his computer guy a shot at it. And because I had nothing else to lose, I hit control+alt+delete, and OHMIGOSH! Like magic the screen cleared off, and the antivirus scan let me know that all was well and that I could keep my hard drive. 

And that brings me to the deck picture in today's post. It's there not only because it was the most fall I've ever seen this late in the year (the impatiens in Husband's flower box are still blooming, and the maple tree is glorious) it also replaces the screen shot I had taken of the phishing message on my screen. That picture won't download onto my computer because the computer is running too slowly.

Hmmm. I may still have a problem.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Day After the Day After

This has nothing to do with the subject, but Maine.
I very rarely re-post my own posts (this makes a total of one time that I've done it) but as the world woke up to a new United States president-elect yesterday and my social media channels exploded, I remembered that I had written about this phenomenon before. Just exchange the colors of the winning sides and it's history repeating. So here is my post from exactly four years ago, Nov. 7, 2012. I still believe it.

I'll start this post with an Andy Rooney-ism:

Have you ever noticed how the words "woe" and "woo" are only separated by one letter? No? How about now?



It's a difference that's just about as thin as the margin of victory/defeat that separated my WOO! friends from my WOE! friends. If you read social media at all, though, you would never, ever know this.

WOO! my blue friends say. "Woo! for four more years! And increased prosperity! And peace among all nations! And bluebirds and happiness!"

WOE! my red friends say. "Woe! for four more years! And bankrupting of the nation! And national weakness! And good intentions paving the road to hell!"

Well, in this post that already has just about worn out my caps lock, I have one more capitalized sentiment that sums up my post-election reaction:


The bottom line is that the United States is an enormous ship, and one person will not change the course of this ship. Electing either candidate would not have meant instant change; that is something that will  happen only slowly and only by all of us working together. Or if not all of us, a whole lot more of us working together than are working together right now.

So if you liked the results of this election, you'd better be talking with the people on the losing side--winning them over, and not just winning. This winning over will not occur through superior attitudes and clubbing about of the head and shoulders of those who did not win.

If you did not like the results of this election, you'd better be talking with the people on the winning side--because standing there with your fingers in your ears saying "I can't hear you" is not working. Not for your views, and not for your country.

Fortunately, win or lose, woo or woe, the sun came up this morning and we have another chance to do this whole messy process again, and to do it better next time.

Also, God is in control.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I Voted.

This morning when I went to my polling place (at mid-morning, when I'm normally the only voter in the room) the lines had snaked out of the voting area, completely around the huge adjoining room, and halfway down the sidewalk to the street outside. I didn't count, but I'm guessing the number of people waiting to vote at this one precinct in Small Town might have gone into the multiple hundreds.

My friend, a precinct worker in the overflow room, saw the expression on my face and hurried over.

"You know, you can request a paper ballot and go to the front of the line," he told me.

I did, and do you know how long it to me to cast my ballot, from the time I walked in the door until I walked back out that door? Six minutes.

I talked with friends outside on the sidewalk twice that long, and had to go back inside because I had forgotten to get my sticker, but from the moment I pulled into the parking lot until I was back on the street it was less than 15 minutes.

Do you see how amazing that is? I voted, and had an influence (however tiny that influence might be) over the future of the greatest nation on earth, and it took me less than 15 minutes.

Then I went to the grocery store, where I ran into a guy I know from church. "I voted for Trump this morning!" he told me gleefully. "And I cancelled you out!" I told him just as gleefully.

Do you see how amazing that is? I voted, and I talked about my vote without fearing persecution or loss of friendship, even though this has been the most horribly divisive campaign I've experienced since I voted for Richard Nixon in my very first presidential election.

Tomorrow the election will be over. If 240 years of history is any indication, the opposing sides will shake hands and deal with the results. We will be either glad or sad, but we will deal. And we will continue to be the greatest nation on earth.

Do you see how amazing that is?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Maine: What We Did

Last Thursday in the span of two hours I donated blood, got a flu shot, and walked right past the carts full of discount Halloween candy at the grocery store. (And there were pumpkin-shaped Reese's in those carts!)

I was feeling so righteous that it would not have surprised me had I been taken right up into heaven in a whirlwind a la the prophet Elijah, but suddenly I realized I had not yet blogged about the promised places of Maine. So there I was on Friday, as yet un-raptured and overloading the cyber-circuits with my pictures. Then I waited another two days.

But finally, without further ado, What We Did in Maine.

Well, just one more tiny bit of ado, which is a disclaimer: We arrived in the very nick of time to see much of what we saw. In fact, the picture above was taken on Peak's Island, where we were greeted by Mike of Mike's Golf Cart Rentals.

"You ah the last customers of 2016, and ya got one hour," he announced. Well, alrighty. But after we had taken possession of the cart and started out on the 35-minute circumnavigation of the island, we realized we were not really up for much more than that. People, it was COLD.

Husband checked his weather app and at that moment back at home it was a balmy 82 degrees. We were in the low 50s, but the brisk stiff ferocious sea wind made it feel like we should be chipping ice off of our barnacles. We had planned to do some beach-combing but we jumped out of the cart only long enough to have a passing stranger snap a picture of us (I apparently was smuggling pumpkins under my skirt), then it was back to the island inn for lobster rolls. Be ye not fooled by the beautiful blue skies. Cold.

So attractive. So cold.
Fortunately, the beaches in the areas where we alighted were not particularly amenable to combing so braving the wind was not much of a temptation. This shot was taken on the other side of the island, and even Mike warned us to be careful on the rocks.

In fact, the weather was not particularly cooperative for many of the four days we were there, but we mostly didn't complain because we were there. One of the best things about Maine is that it's relatively small. In Kansas, if you want to see Boot Hill, and the Big Ball of Twine, and the Agricultural Hall of Fame, and the Garden of Eden, you'd better be blocking off several days because mileage. But in Maine, you could get anywhere in an hour. (That proclamation was in the rulebook that also said every meal would cost $20.)

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for example, was about that far south down the road, and we spent a delightful day in this sailing town that had really spooky fall street decorations.

The guy in the Kansas shirt is not part of the decorations

Or you could get to the L.L. Beane headquarters in Freeport, and find out they're having a pumpkin carving contest.

For years Husband has given Stonewall Kitchen jams and jellies as major client gifts at Christmas, and if you stop at this company's mother ship in York you will be able to eat your body weight in sample jams and jellies, although your body weight will continue to increase as you eat those samples so you're continually having to stuff more jam into your mouth to keep up. Yummmm.

We also took the aforementioned ferry ride to Peak's Island, freezing our keisters but loving the view of Portland from the east side.

Perhaps my two favorite stops on the trip, though, were unplanned. As we drove through Brunswick toward L.L. Bean, we decided to sidetrack at Bowdoin College. Husband remembered that Joshua Chamberlain had been a professor there before he fought in the Civil War, and later was the hero of the movie Gettysburg. So we set off to find Chamberlain's grave in the cemetery near the college.

We drove up one tiny lane and down the other, circling back and peering at stones that have been worn almost smooth by a hundred New England winters. Finally, on what we had decided would be one last look, we found it.

A more modern stone now marks the grave of this man who became president of the college after the war (and was the last person to die of Civil War-related injuries), and visitors leave tiny tributes on top of the marker. A stone, or a penny, or a beautiful leaf. It was a lovely remembrance and one of those pennies is mine.

A cemetery also adjoins the tiny country church where we worshiped Sunday morning. We met every single person in the congregation, not a difficult task when there are only 20 or so in attendance, but the kindness, gentleness, and self-control reminded us that geography is a man-made overlay on the spiritual map.

And then we walked back across the street to our AirBnB home for the four days, a studio apartment in a residential neighborhood that fit our schedules and personalities perfectly.

Oh, Maine. I miss it already. The next time I'm as righteous as I was last Thursday, I hope the whirlwind drops me right back there.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Maine: What We Ate

The Good Sport
When last we met I was promising that this post would tell you what we ate during our four-day Maine vacation. If pressed, I could do that fairly succinctly:

We ate everything. The end. 

But because you know me well, you know that I am not going to stop there. Oh, no. You are going to get descriptions and photos and rankings of practically everything on our plates (as well as some foods we didn't even bother to use plates with). Sit back and grab yourself an Alka-Seltzer for the sympathetic indigestion. 

Before I start I should add a disclaimer: As a general rule, in order to gobble down every edible morsel, we limited ourselves to two meals a day, mid-morning breakfast and an adventurous dinner. Also, we have reached the age at which "Hey, let's get one and split it" seems like a swell idea rather than something to be ridiculed, which reminds me that I owe my late in-laws an apology on this front. 

So off we go. Let's start with breakfast:

I had permission to take this picture
The Holy Donut is a Portland institution, and is ranked as one of the top doughnut shops in the entire nation. It is so popular, in fact, that you must ASK PERMISSION to take photos of their doughnuts. There is a tiny bit of Soup Nazi feel to this shop: Know how many you are going to ask for in advance, step to the front quickly, everyone else seems to know the rules and you don't, etc. We didn't arrive until mid-morning, and maybe that's the reason we were somewhat disappointed in the product. Potato doughnuts have a different texture and taste and I'm sure that taste is acquired, but we had neither the time nor the inclination to fight lines to acquire it. In spite of the dozens of interesting flavors, I'd take a Daylite Donut baked cinnamon roll any day over what we bought there (and a single Holy Donut cost $2.25). Grade: C-

After messy meal division 
But, oh, breakfast connoisseurs. Do not leave Portland without eating your first meal of the day at the Bayside American Cafe. This place.... Well, excuse me for moment while I drool a memory. I forgot to take a picture before I slopped half of my corned beef hash onto Husband's place and slid one of his Crabcake Eggs Benedicts onto my own plate, but not much later the plates looked like this:
I resisted licking it.
If I could only eat one meal in Maine, I would eat this meal. It was soooo good, from the coffee you are invited to serve yourself while you wait for a table, to the corned beef that wasn't so much hash as the tenderest slab of deliciousness to ever come off a cow, to the crabcake that was all crab instead of a little crab and mostly breadcrumbs (which is the way we Kansans do it). It wasn't cheap (this was where I formed my hypothesis that every meal in Maine costs $20, whether you're eating lobster or an Egg McMuffin) but sooooo good. Grade: A+

An exception to my price guide above was this meal:
At the Sacko, Maine, Grange Hall
We noticed an ad in the a small-town newspaper for a community bean feed so we decided to go all local and see what they serve at the Sacko Grange Hall on a Saturday night. Husband, good sport that he is, is not a fan of beans. This is a sadness in my life, as I would choose beans over almost any other food, but he agreed to put aside his personal preferences because we'd never been to a Grange Hall bean feed before. 

While we'd never been to a Maine bean feed, though, we've been to about a thousand of these meals in our lives: A Maine bean feed is exactly exactly exactly the same as the Small Town soup supper for Habit for Humanity, or the Boy Scout pancake feed, or any other small town benefit. The beans are different (I had expected big pots of navy beans with ham but these were more like my Calico Baked Beans) but the wonderful homemade pies, the kids refilling our water cups, and the powdered creamer on the table made me smile with recognition. Also, at $8 each, this was the cheapest meal we had in Maine. I would give it my highest rating except that there was some kind of jerry-rigged support system on the ceiling and I was a little afraid I was going to be beaned by a rafter at any time. Grade: A

But this is the meal you've been waiting for a report on, right? 

Well, as Husband's bib suggests, let's get cracking.

Neither of us, at six-plus decades on this Earth, had ever eaten a lobster. We truly are pathetic. So with this the top priority on our culinary list, we asked our local hostess where she would recommend we go. We ended up at Docks Seafood, which she assured us is where the locals eat their own lobsters. 

It was a good choice. This is an order-at-the-counter place where a two-lobster meal with two sides will set you back $23. The lobsters are small, the friendly guy at the counter told us, so why didn't we split one of the two-lobster meals and try something different for the second meal? 


Because I have always read too much, especially books about Scotland and the islands off the coast of Maine, I had heard the words "finnan haddie." The people in those books about Scotland and the islands off the coast of Maine love their finnan haddie, and when I saw it on the menu, I didn't even ask what it was before I made it our second choice. That was a mistake.

Finnan Haddie, which sounds much better in books than it tastes
It turns out that finnan haddie, rather than being a charmingly fresh and flaky seafood, is haddock smoked over green wood and cooked in a concoction of white sauce and hard-boiled eggs. It was edible, barely, but we are not fans of finnan haddie, and I am now doubting my Scottish sympathies. Grade: D+

And I'm sorry to say that (spoiler alert) we also were not fans of the lobster. I know! What kind of plebeians are we? Maybe it's because we were incredibly inept with the crackers and in spite of the "Let's Get Cracking" bib I ended up with lobster juice in my hair, covering both arms, and in my eyebrows. Maybe it was because that gross green liver ooze was smeared over every bite I took. Maybe it was because it just seems so wasteful to have this much trash for what turned out to be about six bites of lobster:

Whatever the reason, Husband and I agreed that at the risk of unhinging the jaws of everyone we know (LOBSTER IS SO DELICIOUS! was the common reaction to a Facebook foodie post) we would prefer a good ribeye any day. We did not enjoy the taste enough to put up with the hassle.

And there is the added bonus that you are not required to look your ribeye in the bulging eyes immediately before it is dropped into boiling water from which it reappears a few minutes later with those same eyes staring accusingly back at you from your Styrofoam plate. Grade: D

However, I did love lobster rolls, in which the lobster is thoughtfully removed from the garbage before it is served to you. In fact, I was so busy snarfing lobster rolls (seasonal price: $20) that I did not take a picture of either of our lobster roll meals. You are welcome. Grade: A, both times. 

So now we have eaten everything in Maine. Four days, four million calories. 

Worth it. 

(Next post: What we did.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

It's Lobstah, Not Lobster

Ports Head Lighthouse
Oh, hey! Remember me? The one you last saw in this space talking about how much fun it is to travel when the kids are adults? Today allow me to add a category to that "It's so much fun to travel when..." category.

It's so much fun to travel when you're traveling in the fall.

Back in the day, when the school calendar dictated that we schedule our vacations between early June (when it's really hot) and mid-August (when it's downright hellish), we did not let weather or crowds keep us off the road. We packed up the kids and the camper and headed for all the points of the compass, sweating and hydrating and fighting the crowds.

Even then, though, Husband vowed that some day, some glorious day, we would never hit the road when the thermometer hit triple digits. He did not actually use the phrase "AS GOD IS MY WITNESS!" but that was definitely implied.

And so, last year we spent an October week in Michigan and loved it. This year, I had a denominational commitment in Chicago during mid-October and Husband off-handedly said "Would you want to go out to Portland for a few days from there?"

I was packing before he put the closing quote marks on that sentence.

I've only been to Maine twice before, but I purely love it. I love the really, really, really tall trees and the friendly natives. I love thinking "Hey! That's the ocean!" when I see a body of water. I love the flinty granite roadsides, so different from our Midwestern limestone. And after a rather craptastic spring, I was ready for a fantastic fall.

We were gone eight days total, and if we consider one of those days traveling to Chicago, a Chicago day, a second travel day, and a travel day home, we really only had four full days on the coast. But oh, my. What a four days.

We saw lighthouses and islands. We traveled up to Bath and down to Portsmouth. We saw trees with colors so vivid they couldn't possibly be natural. (I'm calling shenanigans on those trees.) We searched centuries-old graveyards and froze our noses on rocky beaches. We ate our way through the state's finest (and not so fine) delicacies.

I am a Kansan, down to my DNA and neutral anchorman's accent. But if I weren't, I think I'd be a Maine-lander.

Especially in the fall.

(Tomorrow: What we ate.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Why Road Trips Are Better Now

Husband and I love to travel, and we've done our fair share of this during the past 33 years. We did not let the ages or dispositions of our Boys keep us off the road because we wanted them to grow up to love travel as well. Our first camping trip, in fact, was during the weeks before Boy#1 had his second birthday and Boy#2 was four months old.

Around the House on the Corner we fondly refer to those 16 days as "The Trip From Hell."

Yes, we do. Because even though we did/do believe that traveling is a wonderful family experience, traveling with small children, as one friend pointed out at the time, is like going fourth class. In Bulgaria.

Last weekend a quick run-out to the Memphis wedding of one of our pseudo-sons reminded me why I love traveling with my family so much more now. We left after work Thursday and met Boy#4 at the halfway point, then arrived in Memphis just in time to meet Boy#2 (who had flown in) at the hotel.

Oh, people. Traveling with grown-up children is so much better than traveling with small dictatorial beings who dominate schedules, conversations, and mood. Why is that?

Well, older children do all the driving while I read books and nap.

Older children are up for interesting food, and are okay with hanging around for an hour waiting for a table to be available at a brunch restaurant where they make lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry sauce.

Older kids know that Mom is too warm in every single hotel room in the world, and they pack their own blankets instead of whining. Nope, not kidding.

They put up with the elderly members of the party insisting on taking pictures of the "kids" from home who are marrying and being married...

These are not all my actual biological children, but I'd claim any of them.
...although they aren't above 'jacking Mom's phone for a selfie while they wait for the happy couple to get done with the professional pictures.

But the best part comes when they get to choose a day-after-the-wedding activity (because they have endured having the old folks scout out the antique malls) and they choose the lamest Putt-Putt golf course ever.

And when, in the hugest upset in memory, the most unlikely member of the putting party wins the game...

Truman beats Dewey!
...there is no whining, no pouting, no stomping and silent rage. They are happy! They are happy for me!

I do wish Boys#1 and #3 and Lovely Girl could have joined us, but because they are grown-ups they have other obligations. Probably just as well, though; I might not have been able to stand the wonderfulness. 

And we didn't eat a single McNugget.

El Plato Cubano at Ronaldo's in Fort Smith, Ark. Que rico!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why I'm Not a Fan of Efficiency

People, I appear to be cresting a veritable wave of efficiency.

What you see in today's illustration is the photo for my new driver's license, which is the worst picture ever taken of me IN MY LIFE and that is saying a mouthful when you consider my second grade picture in which my mother, understandably overwhelmed by trying to get five kids including an infant ready for school pictures, apparently sent me to school with my hair in I-give-up style.

And I would have guessed that this new photo was also taken with the I-give-up filter as well except that I hadn't given up, I was just surprised.

I've had a new license or ten in my life and I knew that the hallmarks of driver's license examination stations are long lines and crabby employees so I made my plans carefully. Even though my license doesn't actually expire for another six weeks, I'd go today while I had a couple hours of free time. I'd jump in line as quickly as I could, then go to the restroom to fix my hair and lipstick.

That was my plan until I opened the door of the station and there was no one there except two friendly ladies.

"Just stand right there in front of the blue screen and I'll get your picture before we start," Friendly Lady On The Right told me.

That look of surprise in the photo? It's nothing compared to the look on my face when FLOTR did this:

This is my old license, one of my two forms of identification.


With no warning whatsoever Friendly Lady bisected my license, slowing my world to an underwater dream sequence in which I was shouting "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" in a bubbly bass voice.

That's because in exactly nine days, I will be flying to Chicago for a business meeting. Know what you have to have to get on a plane? A driver's license. Know what I don't have right now? The same.

Friendly Lady assured me that there will be no problem using my temporary shocked-looking paper license to fly out of our nearly-local airport, "but getting back might be more of a problem."

So, to recap, I was being super-efficient and renewing my driver's license before it was actually on the verge of expiring. I super-efficiently was the only person in the DMV line, and had everything I needed for the renewal.

Remind me of that in two weeks when I'm living in the Chicago airport, unable to return home. That may be where the efficiency breaks down.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Updates, Because You Were Waiting Breathlessly

There may be some out there who are getting a little tired of my constant updates about Husband's new lawn-mowing scheme. Or rather, his non-lawn-mowing scheme.

The lawn mullet (I know, I know, lawn Mohawk) is now in its second month of life. This may be the final update because while it's thrived well into the first week of fall, tell-tale signs of impending dormancy are starting to appear.

But last week I got a Facebook message from a young friend who lives a couple of blocks away:

"MomQueenBee! Husband has started a trend! K. has officially jumped on the bandwagon and is growing and maintaining a yard Mohawk. Lol!"

People, look!

The lawn mullet has a little brother! We could not be prouder.

Oh, and in another, less exciting update, I can now say how long a henna tattoo lasts. For me, that would be just under a week. I'm a faithful handwasher (in addition to all of the regular eating-and-bathroom washings, I head for the sink any time I get home from someplace outside the house because pretty sure I grabbed handrails and grocery cart handles) and this devotion to sanitation has not been good for henna maintenance. I only have the flower on my wrist remaining.

Nonetheless, this experience of having a henna tattoo has been a hoot. When one is the approximate color and squishiness of a loaf of Wonder Bread, a hand tattoo is an unexpected accessory. Pretty much everyone noticed, but absolutely no one commented.

And that was a shame, because I had a whole list of responses ready, including "WHAT? WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?"

I am becoming what my Boys have dreaded I would become.

Monday, September 26, 2016

May It Be Permanent

I'm teaching a class at Small College this semester, a kind of vestigial tail of my involvement with the place I worked for 27 years. The division chair had asked me to take on the media writing course last spring, and I had been apprehensive. I knew I knew how to write; did I know how to teach how to write?

The jury is still out on that question, but there is no question that this has been an experience I should not have missed: Two of the six students enrolled in the class are from Saudi Arabia.

I knew less than nothing about Saudi Arabia before I met Turki and Maher. My impressions were formed by osmosis from the many times I've half-listened to Lawrence of Arabia (it's one of Husband's favorite movies) and even I know that watching a 1962 blockbuster is not a good way to learn about a culture.

In the last two months, though, my students often have been my teachers. While I've been explaining the clean functionality of the inverted pyramid style, they've mentioned that they get most of their news from Twitter, where trusted sources are not state controlled. Turki stayed after class to let me know that his wife is within a couple of weeks of giving birth, but he'd be sure to let me know so that he could get the assignments. He told me that although they have a three-year-old this will be a new experience, that at home his wife would move in with her mother for 40 days after the birth, and if her mother wasn't available the 40 days would be spent with her mother-in-law.

Friday was Saudi Arabia Independence Day, and before class ended Turki invited all of us to a celebration on campus that night.

Husband and I walked into the conference room not knowing what to expect but we were swept into a celebration that was joyous and welcoming. In a long white tunic and red-checked headdress,Turki was almost unrecognizable as the blue-jeans-clad student in my 8 a.m. class. He handing us dates and tiny cups of coffee and told us this was a traditional way of welcoming guests. Then he filled our hands with delicacies, explaining what each one was and beaming his pleasure that we had come.

The room was filled with Saudis, the men and boys dressed in full-length white tunics and women in clothing that ranged from simple head coverings to gowns that left only their beautiful eyes uncovered. For the next two hours they joyfully shared their food, their music and dancing, and their adorable children. Husband wiggled into an ankle-length thawb and Turki buttoned his cuff while another young man arranged the red-checked headdress for a picture.

Husband and Turki
I waited my turn to have henna free-formed onto my hand, chatting with the woman next to me about her beaming baby, and the fact that her sister and I have the same name. The artist squeezed the henna out of a gold cone, brushing on a flower, then a feather, and curling the design down my index. It looks like a quill pen, and I imagine words flowing out of my pointing finger. "Let it dry, then wash it off with water," she told me.

Dancing was still in full swing when Husband and I slipped out, at Turki's bidding signing the green banner that would commemorate the occasion. "All joy," I wrote.

The henna on my hand dried as Husband and I sat watching another old movie, and I was sad to scrape the last remnants away. The remaining stain seemed faded after the joy of the evening. Even as I rinsed the flower and feather design, though, I was thinking of the children I had met a few hours earlier. They are beautiful and beloved, just like the children at the Mexican refuge where I've painted houses.

And it occurred to me:

It is impossible to hate a nation if you have played with that nation's children. Should we maybe make playing with children a requirement for political candidates, for bloggers, for anyone who thinks Saudis, or Mexicans, or Syrians, or persons of any other race than their own, are hate-bait?

The henna stain on my hand deepened overnight, and I have smiled every time I see it curled around my trackball. Saudi Arabia is no longer just a spot on a map or an abstract concept. It is Turki, and Nussi, and Maher, and Abdulaziz. It is the tiny boy in an ankle-length white tunic eating a piece of pizza off the buffet line. And in spite of my arthritis-knobby knuckles and work-crooked fingers and age spots, the shared gift is beautiful.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Perfectly Parsley

When my adorable niece-in-law emailed to see if there was an extra bed in the House on the Corner during Small Town's annual music festivapalooza, I wrote back with a caution.

"Absolutely, and I can't wait to see you, but be aware that we're pretty much an old fogey house now. No toys, no kids books, no child-proofing."

"It's okay," she replied. "If you have pots and pans, we're fine."

She knew I wouldn't let her come if I didn't bring Parsley, who just turned two years old. (I've changed her name here, of course, to foil any crazy old ladies who might hunt her down just to pinch her squeezable cheeks. I'm looking in the mirror at you, MomQueenBee.)

I wasn't sure if I remembered how to act when there's a two-year-old in the house.

I had not forgotten that you don't swoop down and grab them out of their mother's arms, no matter how tempting that might be. No, you introduce yourself to two-year-olds slowly, sharing  an old gardening hat and the pompoms that were left over from a conference a couple months ago.

When you make muffins, you bring out a second Tupperware bowl and spill a little flour into it for some companionable stirring.

You dig around in the cupboard over the desk for the crayons you stashed there after Boy#4 graduated from third grade 16 years ago, and even though the crayons have sat untouched so long they've melted into their wrappers, they still draw perfect trace-around-the-hand turkeys and occupy Parsley for hours.

(I am in awe at her concentration and the length of time she could spend coloring--I'm pretty sure all four of the Boys, in all of their childhoods combined, did not spend a full hour coloring. WHHHHYYYYY???)

I'm not just being a polite hostess when I say that Parsley was the best-behaved, most charming, most biddable two-year-old I've ever spent the weekend with. (Sorry, Boys. I'll love you forever and like you for always and all that other misguided-family-dynamics stuff, but you were largely un-biddable.) When she was told to not mess with the television wires, she did not mess with the television wires. She didn't stick forks in the outlets, she didn't empty out drawers, she didn't throw non-throwable objects. (Although she did love our slingshot cow and giggled uncontrollably when it hit the ground and MOOO-ed after a mighty toss.) Her mom and dad are doing a masterful job of instilling manners, and I had to smile every time she said "Tank-oo ma'am!" 

But then, if I'm being totally honest, I had kind of forgotten how constant a two-year-old in the house can be. It was nice to have an hour or two of staring vacantly at the wall when Parsley and her adorable mother went to the festival for some bluegrass music, and I took a long nap Sunday afternoon when they were on their way home. 

A Parsley-sized washboard
There's a reason God gives two-year-olds to young parents and naps to old fogeys but I'm still sad Parsley and her parents don't live closer. I've had my nap--now I'm ready to throw a cow to a toddler again.