Saturday, October 30, 2004

Halloween Costumes

Three years ago on Halloween my friend Debbi held her housewarming party in Providence, Rhode Island. I showed up without a costume because I knew I could find something to wear at her house. Debbi is a collector, especially of goddess art, clothes, and masks. I knew I would not have to remain ordinary-looking at Debbi's house.

In going through her collections, I picked out a feathered mask and a flouncy, lacy white dress. I chose the ultra-girly white dress because normally I dress in black pants, dark colored shirts, and Doc Martens or other black shoes. I used to wear brighter colors, but then I lived in New England for 9 years. At this point my closet is a row of black, tan, and navy clothing, plus two red blouses, and the scariest part is that I like it that way.

I chose the opposite of what I usually wear because I thought it would make Debbi laugh, but it did more than that. Debbi was absolutely transported with delight because I had unknowingly chosen the fairy dress. This dress was a part of her previous house. When she purchased that house, she stipulated in the contract that the owners, upon vacating the house, would leave to her one costume of their choice from their sizable collection. They chose the fairy dress, which was appropriate for Debbi since she is very fond of fairies.

I wore the fairy dress all evening, and Debbi said it was a sign of good luck for her new house. After that I decided that since I could never pick a costume for Halloween, I would just be a fairy queen every year in honor of Debbi and her special party on her favorite holiday. It is important to distinguish between a fairy godmother and a fairy queen. A fairy godmother does favors for children; a fairy queen turns people into donkeys when they get on her nerves.

Last year in North Carolina I bought myself a girly white dress and wore it to a costume party, but this year I am living in Iowa, and it is much colder than in Rhode Island or North Carolina. Therefore I am welching out on the fairy costume and going as a cowgirl, an outfit that will keep me warm. I'll be a fairy again the next time I attend a warm indoor party.

Unfortunately, I have lost my brother's boyhood leather belt, which was in my collection for a while. It has horses and ranch scenes tooled on it. I cannot believe I would have given it away, and I hope it will turn up.

I will be wearing the cowboy boots that a former landlord gave me because they were uncomfortable. These are dancing boots, not field boots. In the first place, they are a pale red leather with yellow heels and toes. In the second place, they have two-inch heels. Two-inch heels!! Even one-inch heels are high enough to make my back hurt, and normally I only wear two-inch heels with either the Electric Blue Party Dress, the Swirling Spanish Dress, or the black dress whose name shall not be mentioned on this blog because it could be misconstrued as rude. (My cocktail dresses have names. Wanna make something of it?) Who wears cowboy boots with two-inch heels?? Pretty much just me, and even I only wear them on special occasions.

My borrowed cowboy hat is simply amazing. It is from Paris, Texas, and is made of beaver felt, which is crushed beaver fur. The hatband has two kinds of feathers in it. The feathers alternate between small brown feathers with white speckles, and long blue feathers. It is a glorious hat, and it fits me perfectly.


Friday, October 29, 2004

Alpine Tunnel

On my third day visiting my Colorado friends, there was finally no rain, but Elantu did not feel well, and Harold can't ride in the Land Cruiser because his back is worse than mine. Mike and I were both positively itching to go somewhere, and it was likely to rain again the next day, so I took Mike up on his offer to go on a Land Cruiser adventure.

We drove up Old Monarch Pass, a well maintained dirt road with a lot of very long switchbacks, and then we went over Blacksage Pass and Waunita pass, so we bagged three dirt road passes on our way to our ultimate destination, Alpine Tunnel. We occasionally had to stop for various animals in the road: cattle, marmots, and one female blue grouse. Finally we passed through the town of Pitkin and headed up the road to Alpine Tunnel. This road is listed as a Class 1, but we've got a couple of substantial cowboy hats that we'll eat if that was an appropriate designation. It's an old railroad bed clinging stubbornly to the mountainside because if it lets go, it will plummet over a dizzying distance all the way down to the valley below.

We drove past one place where there used to be a town, but it was buried in a landslide, and pretty much everybody died and they never rebuilt. There is no longer any sign of the town. At another spot farther up, there was a former town where there were still a few beams remaining here and there.

We passed the entrance to Hancock Pass and continued up to where our road got really narrow. Since we were going up, we had the right of way over the Palisades, an area where the railroad workers seemed to have built the road out from the mountain instead of cutting it into the mountain. The road is supported by the stones that the workers cut and fitted themselves. It's narrow, so a full-size vehicle can drive along it, but two full-size vehicles would be hard-pressed to pass one another even at a pull-out.

We drove on by Williams Pass, which is a pile of very sizable rocks that someone refers to as a pass. It is only open from August 1 to August 30 each year.

We arrived at Alpine Tunnel 3.5 hours after leaving the house; we were at 11,600 feet. There was some rain and hail, but we walked out into it to see the old railroad depot, which has been partially restored through volunteer labor. It was quite interesting; I liked it that I could still see the depot's archway in the pattern of the fallen stones. There were some marmots sunning themselves on the restored engine turning area.

Alpine Tunnel caved in during the early 20th century. It has since been sealed to prevent fools like us from peeking in to see what it looks like in there, so of course we were disappointed, but we went ahead and hiked up to 12,000 feet through the rain and hail. The weather cleared up when we reached 12,000 feet. Mike stopped to rest and enjoy the view, and I scampered on for another 10 minutes down the Continental Divide trail toward Tunnel Lake, through an absolutely divine Alpine meadow full of wildflowers, little birds, and chipmunks. There were two stream crossings as well. I felt like Julie freakin' Andrews crossing the Alps, even though I hate that movie. It was perfect, and I hated to leave, but I knew that since it took us so long to get there, we really needed to be heading back. We had told Elantu we'd be back by 7.

On our way down, we had to pull over to allow a full-sized pickup to pass, and we thought we might have to back up the road to find a wider spot. Mike teased me for the rest of my visit because I kept telling him he had more space to pull closer to the edge of the cliff. However, the pickup's driver was extremely bold--you should have seen how he pulled to the very edge of that scary road to let a bunch of four-wheelers drive past him. Mike moved some rocks down from the cliff onto the road so that the pickup could drive at an angle with his right tires on the cliff, and he cruised right past us. After that we hurried down the road with no further incidents.

We thought about bagging another pass, but Mike decided to spare my back by returning over modern, paved Monarch Pass, and it was a good thing we did that, because we got back at 10 minutes of 7. Elantu was about to roust Harold and come out after us!

The four of us had dinner and a movie at the house, and retired for the night.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Cranberry-Grapenut Bread

Last Friday evening was a party for my aunt's birthday. In the early afternoon my mom asked me if I had gotten my aunt a present, and my response was, "" Abruptly, I realized I would be baking bread that afternoon. My aunt's daughters and their significant others were visiting my aunt, so I thought I would bake something they could eat for breakfast.

I checked the cupboard for stale raisin bran, but it had already been thrown out, so I took the last of a box of Grape-Nuts. I had been to the grocery store that morning and bought sweetened dried cranberries, so those were going in too.

However, the first order of business was to make a sponge--a yeasty base that would rise like gangbusters. I started with one cup of wrist-temperature water, dissolved a scant tablespoon of yeast (one package) in the water, added a dash of molasses, and stirred in 1.5 cups of wheat bread flour. I covered the sponge and put it somewhere warm to rise for about 40 minutes.

The sponge: one cup lukewarm water, 1 packet yeast, a little molasses, 1.5 cups wheat bread flour.

Then I heated about a cup of water until it was pretty hot, and I poured it over 2/3 cup of dried cranberries. I added 3 tablespoons of butter so it could melt while the cranberries hydrated, and I poured in another dash of molasses (less than a teaspoon) and a teaspoon of salt.

When the sponge had risen, I dumped 2/3 cup of Grape-Nuts in with my cranberries to briefly moisten the Grape-Nuts, and then I threw the whole mix into the sponge and stirred it down. I added two cups of white bread flour, and then I continued adding wheat flour until the dough was ready to knead.

The add-ins: 1 cup hot water (cooled), 2/3 cup dried cranberries, 3 tablespoons butter, a little molasses, 1 teaspoon salt, 2/3 cup Grape-Nuts cereal, then finally a whole bunch of flour.

At this point bread baking follows a fairly standard pattern. Knead the dough, adding more flour as needed, until the dough is "earlobe soft" and springy. Place it in an oiled bowl, and turn it to oil it so it won't get dry and crusty when it rises. Cover it, and let it rise until doubled in bulk, an hour or so. Knead it again, and form it into loaves, in this case two loaves. Put it in bread pans, cover it, and let it rise again until doubled in bulk, maybe 35 minutes or so.

I baked this bread for about 40 minutes at 375 degrees. I knew it was done because when I rapped on it with my knuckles, it sounded hollow. It more than doubled in size, smelled wonderful, and tasted fabulous.


Monday, October 25, 2004

Heritage Trail

In early September I bought myself a hybrid (mountain-road) bike. I didn't shop around at all. I went to a tiny bicycle shop in Dyersville, Iowa, run as a hobby by a nice man with a day job, and I bought the only new bicycle he had in stock. It is a Cignal Ranger, an inexpensive bike with a heavy steel frame. I figured that if I turned out to be too lazy to ride my bicycle, I wouldn't be out an arm and a leg. As it turns out, I ride about as often as my back allows. Every time the weather is clear and tolerably warm, I say, "This could be the LAST beautiful day before winter! I have to go for a bike ride!" and I'm out the door.

I had intended to regularly ride a circuit from the house to the park, around the park a few times, and back. Unfortunately, my back would not tolerate the terrain, which is hilly and full of deep ruts and plenty of loose gravel. Sadly, I resigned myself to driving to the Heritage Trail, which runs between Dyersville and Dubuque. Philosophically, it irritates me to drive somewhere in order to ride a bicyle, but I suppose that cripples can't be choosers.

Fortunately for me, it turned out that the Heritage Trail was a wonderful bike path. It is a rails-to-trails project with a smooth surface of crushed limestone. I have previously bicycled only in towns and on Rhode Island bicycle paths and roads, which are certainly pleasant, especially the East Bay Bike Path, which runs down the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. However, I like Iowa's Heritage Trail better. It has the beauty of New England without the crowds. Of course in Iowa there's also the intermittent smell of cattle manure, but the natural beauty and solitude make up for it in my view.

At first when I rode for short distances from Dyersville, I was impressed with riding past farms and fields, surrounded by wildflowers and trees and birds. There were a lot of benches available to sit on, great for walkers. Leaving from Dyersville, I would ride uphill on the way out, then downhill on the way back, which meant I could go as far as I could manage, then return easily. I would measure my distance by the number of farms that I passed.

The Heritage Trail propaganda claims that it has no more than a 1% grade at any point, but I do not think that is strictly true, because there are a couple of places where the trail crosses a raised roadway. I guess it would be cumbersome to write "The Heritage Trail has a 1% grade everywhere except at a couple of places where there's a 5% grade, but they're small enough hills that you can get off and walk your bike if you want to. Otherwise it's all 1%."

It does not follow that because the trail is flat, the area is flat. The trail is on a raised rail bed and is often surrounded by hills on either side, sometimes small cliffs where builders blasted a path for the track.

After Farley, the 6-mile mark, the trail becomes sheltered and even prettier, which surprised me since it was so pretty even before that. Farley is the high point of the Heritage Trail, so the trail past Farley is a downhill ride that comes as a relief after the laborious 6-mile climb to Farley up that demanding 1% grade... After Farley one enters cattle country, but it is not particularly stinky because the cattle graze in the fields instead of being kept together in a small area. There are many streams and fields, a few very low cliffs alongside the trail. My favorite spot is at the 9-mile mark: a pond with a large overhanging willow and often geese or swans.

At Epworth, the 10-mile mark, is the first view of a hillside covered in trees, which is a particularly lovely sight in autumn. A mile beyond Epworth the downward slope ends, and the trail climbs slightly uphill again for three more miles toward Graf, where there's a park with welcome toilet facilities.

One weekend I parked in Graf and bicycled to the Farley high point and back, 8.75 miles each way. Graf is difficult to find without either directions or a detailed map, and at first I took a wrong turn and wound up driving on unnumbered roads until I found myself 12 miles away in Dubuque.

Shortly after Graf the terrain changes as the trail nears Dubuque. Dyersville is part of the Western Corn Belt Plains, but Dubuque is part of the Paleozoic Plateau, so named because of the rock strata that have been exposed through erosion. There are a number of steep hills and bluffs. Sometimes the trail cuts directly through them, but more often there are simply beautiful views of stony hillsides. A stream runs alongside the trail for several miles.

At this late date most of the trees have dropped their leaves, and the trail looks wintry. Soon daytime temperatures will be reliably below 40 degrees, and I will stop riding until spring. I don't like the cold wind on my nose.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The King of England

Long ago and far away, in 1995 in Moscow, I was having a far grander time than I have had since then, up until this very year, when I finally had a truly, deeply good time once more. This is a story of a legend, and also a museum, and some truly epic bad breath.

There are museums that every foreign tourist in Moscow visits. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts is not one of them, although its star is rising, and it no longer seems to be virtually ignored in literature for tourists. Nevertheless, the core tourist sights in Moscow are the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery, Arbat Street, and McDonalds. The Pushkin is part of the next tier, one of the secondary sights. Originally designed to house copies of great Classical and European artworks for study, the Pushkin is now a major museum, albeit an eccentric one. While the Tretyakov Gallery is known for its collections of icons and twentieth-century Russian art, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg is known for its impressionist paintings and the sheer vastness of its collection, the Pushkin houses an eclectic collection of extraordinary ancient artifacts, reproductions of Classical and Western European art, and original Western European art from the eighth century to an exceptional twentieth-century collection, making this museum difficult to package for the weekend tourist. The eccentricity of the collection may even attract eccentric patrons, as I learned during my visit to the Pushkin.

I was utterly enthralled by this museum. I started out on the first floor, checked out their special exhibit of engravings by a man named Hieronymus Cock, a Flemish artist who lived from 1510 to 1570, zipped through a few rooms, marveled at the size of David's ankles in the room of reproductions of Classical statues, stopped to examine the Byzantine icons more closely, was particularly fascinated by the cuneiform tablets and seals, looked at every last goddess figure so I could report back to my friend Debbi, and was pondering the Egyptian art and hieroglyphs when, there in the Egyptian room, a dishevelled old man approached me with a bunch of papers in his hand. The top sheet bore a drawing of a dragon. The man asked me something unintelligible in Russian. I don't think I caught a single word. Despite all my years studying Russian, this year is the first year that I made any headway in understanding street Russian. I shook my head and peered intently at an artifact, hoping he'd give up and leave.

He did no such thing. He repeated his query, as rapidly and as incomprehensibly as he had asked it the first time. Again, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. I responded in Russian, "I don't know. I don't even understand. I'm not Russian." This was Error #1. I had only excited his interest: "Where are you from?"

Reluctantly, I answered, "I'm an American." Here was Error #2. I immediately resolved to start answering that question with "I'm from Finland."

The man began speaking to me in English and asked me if I understood him. I did. Great: "I am king of England." (He pronounced it as "kink of England," but I knew what he meant.) Without being asked, he explained that he spoke English with an accent because of an unfortunate speech impediment. Apparently someone less trusting than I had attempted to disprove the origin he claimed for himself.

Well, okay, I thought, this was certainly mildly entertaining, but not nearly as entertaining as what came next. He attempted to prove his lineage by reciting his own version of English history in verse. It was quite long, and he knew it all by heart, although he did have a typed version in his sheaf of papers. In Russia it is common to memorize large amounts of poetry. I have to tell you that I was suitably impressed, but the woman guarding the collection was not. She stalked over to inform him sternly, "No lecturing without a permit." She was a dear woman with a good heart. Nevertheless, the King of England was undeterred. His poetry was all perfectly metrical and rhymed, although there were some strange enjambements, as though it was British history as told by Tom Lehrer.

Despite my interest, too soon I began to reel from over-exposure to his breath and became desirous of escape. I was grateful for the return of the guard and the forceful repetition of her admonition. The man who would be king protested, "I'm not lecturing, we're only chatting!" but she would have none of it, and I interjected, "I need a drink," and made my escape.

I was reminded of this episode a year later in the Japanese garden at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where I saw posted the familiar admonishment "No lecturing."

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Monday, October 18, 2004

Collecting Intangibles

In the morning of my first day in Colorado, Elantu took me to a favorite spot of hers in the San Isabel National Forest. A couple weeks earlier she had taken a writer from Backpacker magazine to that spot, and they spotted a grizzly (and the grizzly spotted them too!), the first one in that area in decades. She showed me where the bear was. She was sad that the rangers reported his departure back to where he came from, but I was openly delighted to know that I would definitely not be meeting any grizzlies. I practically danced with joy.

Elantu showed me where she always went to watch beavers, but there were no more beavers anywhere in the area. The grizzly ate them all.

We drove to Salida, walked along the Arkansas River, and visited some galleries, including a really intriguing little gallery run by Barbara Flynn. Her gallery is packed with little goodies, so no matter how long you stay, you keep running into something you missed the last time you looked.

That evening Elantu, Harold, Mike, and I went out to eat at Country Bounty, where we saw a rainbow and ate scrumptious elk meatloaf seasoned with juniper berries. We drove across Poncha Pass to Joyful Journeys hot springs, and the sky was absolutely incredible. There was a "sun dog" over the mountains: like a small spherical rainbow. We enjoyed the hot springs as well. Joyful Journeys had three soaking areas, one at 99 degrees, one at 104, and one at 108. Only Harold ventured into the hottest one. The rest of us soaked, looked at the mountains and the sunset,... An owl flew directly over us in hot pursuit of some prey.

We met interesting massage therapists who were in the area for a workshop. One guy was a little sanctimonious about not eating anything with a nervous system, and I think he made Elantu's whole evening because she could torment him with tales of plants screaming when harvested for food.

Mike and I both collect intangibles, things that don't clutter up our living spaces. He collects visits to hot springs; I collect memories of people.

By the end of the evening, all my crankiness had dissolved into the mineral water, and even Elantu was no longer remotely cranky, and she's legendary! (In a good way, of course.) She actually features as a cranky character in someone's science fiction novel.

Back at the top of Poncha Pass, we pulled over to admire the night sky, where the entire belt of Milky Way dust was visible in a wide arc across the center of the sky. It was heart stopping. I had never had such a good view of the Milky Way before, and I could have stayed a lot longer than we did.

On my second day we made plans to visit St. Elmo, a historic ghost town. Elantu and Harold were taking some time to get ready, and Mike and I got antsy and took off in his 1965 Land Cruiser, of which he is obscenely and charmingly proud. Elantu had given me a copy of Sibley's bird guide, so on this day and every day after that, I busily identified every bird I saw, and was absurdly pleased with this exercise.

On the way to St. Elmo we saw a Stellar's Jay, which is a brilliant deep blue with black markings. It is a very elegant bird, and I suggested to Elantu that she draw a person as a Stellar's Jay, but I don't think she takes the idea seriously! In St. Elmo we saw a Western Peewee, which is a small, hyper gray bird that appears to be sporting a crewcut.

Elantu and Harold eventually showed up, and we looked at the houses in St. Elmo, which are still preserved and have people living in them. However, we spent most of the time sitting around feeding sunflower seeds to plump, greedy little rodents: chipmunks, squirrels, and ground squirrels. Harold took several pictures of Elantu covered in chipmunks, musing about what dishes she might cook with them now that she had gained their trust.

Mike and I decided to drive up toward Hancock pass, while Elantu and Harold rested and read books for a while. We didn't have time to drive all the way up the pass, but we saw some mining ruins, including a building that had broken clear in half as it slid partway down a mountainside. Now, one of Mike's books rates back roads in Colorado on a 10-point scale based on roughness, exposure, and difficulty. 1 is the easiest. We were on a 2, which is bad enough that although I could drive my Camry on it, I wouldn't want to because I would worry about screwing up the alignment. 6 is about as rough as Mike ever likes to drive on.

Completely innocent of what was in store for us, I made known my burning desire to drive up to see the Mary Murphy Mine, which was the chief source of revenue for the old town of St. Elmo. Mike obligingly turned onto the one-mile road to the mine, which looked like about a 3 in roughness, but which quickly transformed into a 5 (we looked it up later). There was nowhere to turn around for about half a mile, so we bumped and bounced up this pile of rocks that qualified as a road only in the sense that there were no trees in our path. My head was banging against the headrest, and I was laughing, and I had to say that this road had the most beautiful view we had seen all day. We were looking down a steep dropoff to a narrow streambed and some ruined wooden buildings. The roof had caved in on one building so that it looked like it was upside down. I wanted to go ahead and drive or walk all the way to the mine, but we really didn't have time because we had to meet Elantu and Harold at the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs.So we lurched and lumbered back down that outrageous excuse for a road, and we headed on down to the hot springs.

Mt. Princeton Hot Springs has two full-size swimming pools, one of which is quite hot, probably 102 degrees. The other pool is actually for swimming, and it's about 90 degrees. In addition, there's a river that runs right past. You can walk down to the river and settle into a pool near a spout pouring runoff from the hot pools into the river, and you arrange rocks and sand to admit only as much freezing river water as you want, to set the temperature of your rock grotto to whatever suits you. Then you settle down to watch the rapids dance past at eye level while you stay comfortably warm and cozy.


Thursday, October 14, 2004

Midwest Miso

The somewhat raucous kitchen does not always have everything on hand to make dinner.

A few weeks ago I bought some packages of instant miso soup, $0.25 per bag of four packets, each of which would reconstitute into 8 ounces of thick, salty miso with tiny tofu bits floating in it.

I pondered what I would make with this cheap miso. I could drink it like tea at work. I could make myself yummy soy-based vegetable soups. Or, alternatively, I could use it for wildly non-macrobiotic purposes its creators never intended.

At my parents' household, a meal is not a meal without meat, and most soups also contain meat. Certainly main dish soups contain meat. I decided that a simple soup containing stewing beef, watercress, and miso would be delicious, and the meat and vegetables would absorb some of the salt so the soup would not taste quite so salty.

Unfortunately, watercress requires a special trip to the city, and I didn't get around to it right away, so when it came time for me to make dinner tonight, I decided to do without my watercress. My mother went to town to take my aunt to her driving test and play in the alumni band. I was excused from these duties, but only in exchange for making dinner. I clearly got the better end of this deal, so I was more than happy to make dinner.

At my request, Mom left me a nice hunk of beef to thaw on the countertop. I inspected the refrigerator and came up with some appropriate soup vegetables.

In the mid-afternoon I began to cook. I chopped half a Vidalia onion and sauteed it in canola oil. I browned the hunk of beef. I cut up a garlic clove and a carrot, slicing the carrot into small strips because I think it looks cute that way. The carrots are from my uncle's garden, so they are particularly tasty. They are not merely better than grocery store carrots, they are also better than carrots from other people's gardens. I do not know why this is, but it is so.

After adding the garlic and carrot, I chopped up a celery stalk and a cup of cabbage, and I added them too. I poured in 6 cups of water and 4 individual packets of dried miso mix. Then I turned up the heat and waited.

After a while I took out the hunk of meat, chopped it up, and put it back in. By this time the soup was done, sooner than I expected, so I shut off the heat and let it cool. Then it occurred to me that I should add ginger, so I threw in a small piece of dried ginger. I refrigerated it until dinnertime, when I forgot to add cilantro, reheated the soup, and served it.

Here are the ingredients that went into the soup:

1 Tbsp. canola oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
around a pound of beef
one medium carrot, julienne
one garlic clove, minced
one stalk of celery, chopped
1 cup cabbage, lightly chopped
6 c. water
4 packets dried miso
fresh or dried ginger
black pepper to taste

I thought it was very tasty, although the beef was a little tough. I would have preferred to use a different cut, such as stewing chunks or a small roast. It would have been good with an added grain, as well, like barley or rice.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004

My Intro to Camping

About a week after a really tough July stumbling through summer camp with sciatica, trying my best not to grouse at the students, I decided I needed a vacation.

I started out with a visit to the Iowa State Fair with my parents and an aunt; we were the recipients of a Century Farm Award for a farm that has been in the family since the late 1800s. While at the fair, I also ate Iowa cornfed beef, rode the double ferris wheel, and wandered around filling out a questionnaire that allowed me to enter a drawing to win a really cool mountain bike. I didn't win the bike, though, only a free T-shirt, so I had to buy my own bike at a later date.

I drove out of Des Moines around 2:00 that day and got as far as Kearney, Nebraska, where I camped at a state recreation area. It was cheap, and there were showers, and you stopped noticing the smell of cattle after a while. Unfortunately, the ground proved to be rocky, and I had a brand new tent and no hammer. I pounded away at the stakes for 5 or 10 minutes, tried to put the tent up without stakes, and finally gave up. I had to move the tent to softer ground and try a second time to pound in the tent stakes, using a stainless steel padlock from my trunk. I did get all the stakes into the ground, although in the process I bent one steel stake and broke off a piece of bone in my right pinky, which has since interfered a lot with my ability to stir things. I had to beg help from a passing elderly couple to get the tent fully erected before dark, because one pole would not behave. Without a second person, I would have been forced to take the whole tent down to fix the pole.

By the time the tent was up, my back was too tired for me to put up the rain flap, so I decided that if it rained hard in the night, I would throw the tent into the car and drive on. It did rain, but not hard enough for me to give up and leave.

The next morning I took off, making one necessary stop in Sterling, Colorado, to buy a tent mallet, a tool box, and a White Stripes c.d. Then I continued through Denver and Colorado Springs to scenic highway 115, where my aunt says it looks like God crumpled up the land in His cosmic fist and tossed it down in piles, all scrunched up in balls. I picked up highway 50 in Canon City and drove through the Arkansas River canyon to my friends' house, which is just shy of Salida. The canyon was a magnificent array of multitudinous shades of red stone, with a merry river playing and lunging through it. The Arkansas River is happy in itself; it's not that the river is benevolent or anything like that, it really doesn't care one way or the other about humanity, it's just having a jolly old time on its own. You can hear it happily resting for a while in the deep areas, then frolicking through the rapids.

I spent five days visiting my friends Elantu, Harold, and Mike, who make and sell wonderful Celtic artwork together ( Elantu also writes books about ways to cook and eat what you can find in the woods--anyone for Hot Hunan Stir-Fried Field Mouse?--and about rednecks she has known.


Sunday, October 10, 2004

Dish Boy

Alex stood dripping in a restaurant kitchen, alone with the hulking metal appliances that surrounded him like a cage: gleaming bars and locks. He faced a deep, silver steel sink, his hands plunged deep into the stark white soap bubbles. No dishes were in sight; they could only be felt in the heat of the soap suds and slightly oily water. A small dollop of soap suds dangled precipitously from Alex's left ear, clinging to its perch as if fearful of rejoining the Great Link of dish soap amassed below it.

Alex wiped a plate under the foaming mass. Unnoticed, a tendril of suds snaked out from the sink and curled itself around Alex's left arm, sinuously winding its way toward the trembling soap scum at his ear. As Alex pulled the plate out of the sink to rinse it and hang it carefully on the bars of the drying rack, the tendril struck. It forcefully reclaimed the errant soap drop and immediately commenced to punish the interloper who had harbored the escapee.

The suds covered Alex's entire arm and launched themselves upward with lightning speed for a surprise chokehold. Suddenly sensing the damp sudsiness on the sensitive skin of his neck, Alex dropped the plate--"Damn! That comes out of my pay!" His hands scrabbled impotently at his neck, but there were too many suds to wipe off. He flailed helplessly as the entire room, his entire consciousness, filled with soap suds. He reached for the sink to steady himself, but there were only soap suds, no air, no water, no heavy steel appliances.

But there was a phone. Phone? He could hear a phone ringing! He stumbled through the murk, would have fallen if it hadn't been too thick to fall through, and gradually became aware that his support was coming from his own tangled bedsheets. Oh crap! The phone!

"Hello? Hello???"


Saturday, October 09, 2004

First Post

In my family of stalwart Republicans there lives a stealthy rogue Democrat gene. It manifests itself in every other generation; its last appearance was in my father's mother. The rest of the family tolerates Democrats in its midst because we bake excellent bread.

However, I did not come here to talk about politics. I am here to tell little stories. I am an Iowan who's been away for 18 years and is sick to death of being either a graduate student or a member of a low-paid part-time labor force. I have moved into my parents' upstairs loft for a few weeks in order to have the leisure to recover from a back injury at one of my assorted part-time jobs and also to find a decent full-time job. In the meantime, I am facing reverse culture shock, which is well known for being worse than regular culture shock.

When a science fiction writer sets a story in the distant past or future, or some galaxy far far away, the writer often gives us a hero who doesn't belong there, someone from our own place and time period whom we can relate to. Otherwise how would we understand all the things that denizens of the foreign land or era take for granted?

I don't know what place I belong to any more, but Iowa is definitely somewhat alien. I grew up here, but 7 years in Texas (very alien) and 9 years in Rhode Island (I never did figure out what to do with that place) did not leave me unchanged. I was always a city girl inside, but now I'm just a city girl all over, and it's obvious to absolutely everyone, not only to me. Even when I take off the dress shoes and the black clothing, the urban Northeast clings to me like Boston fog, the damp air that sticks in your lungs.

One of the first things I did in Iowa this summer was to attend the Red Power Roundup, a gathering of International Harvester tractors and their owners. You may laugh, but I have every right to attend tractor festivals. My grandfather was an IH dealer, and I find farm equipment fascinating from a technical standpoint. I love going to the Farm Progress Show. However, I do stick out like a sore thumb. The Red Power Roundup in particular is a real downhome country event. They actually sell bumper stickers that say, "Friends don't let friends drive green tractors." (IH is red, and John Deere is green.) I attended this event to support a dear friend, and my friend thought those bumper stickers were hilarious. To this day, I simply cannot fathom it.

When I lived in New England, I was sad that life was so seldom deeply weird, so it is good to be west of the Mississippi again. I loved living in Texas because there was something hilarious everywhere I went. Iowa comes close. Recently I went to a bar with some friends, and there was a man there wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed in block letters, "I F*** SHEEP." All letters were present and accounted for. After living on the East Coast, where people looked askance at me if my shirt was too blue (how daring), it is nice to be in a place where a man can proclaim his affinity for sheep. Besides the sheep lovin man, the band at the bar had a gratuitous mascot that was a condom named Pokey.

Texans still don't believe me when I tell them there are rednecks in Iowa. They don't believe me that there are hills either.

Another surreal event was bowling with Ukrainians. Only in Iowa. The Ukrainians had never bowled before. One woman always stood completely still and threw her ball down the alley from that immobile position. She scored higher than I did.

Irish pub and Harley bar, Smithsonian museum and chainsaw artists, river walk and fish fry Friday, that's my Iowa. It's not as weird as Texas, but it will do.