Saturday, July 31, 2010

French Lessons

Sometimes the best ideas can come out of random conversation. Take today, for instance. My coworker and I were discussing the merits of driving a Buick (neither of us actually drive one, but we agree that they are very smooth rides). This led to stories of past family cars, general dislikes of station wagons and minivans and the clunkers our fathers have driven.

As I have previously stated, my father is a former accountant. For those of you who don’t know what this really means, here is the translation: he is really cheap. My raspberry picker story is just one case in point. In what would possibly be lauded as a “green” move, my family was a one-car household throughout my youth. As my mother was a stay-at-home mom with errands to run and kids to haul with her, my father left the car at home and took his bike to work everyday. I have fond memories of my dad coming home from work in his business suit and taking the rainbow colored trouser strap off his leg (to prevent it from getting caught in the bike gears).

While we lived in a small town, this lifestyle was not too difficult to maintain. However, in 1987, with their third child looming, my parents made the big decision to upgrade to a second car. In 1987 I was still too young to have a real sense of what was “cool” when it came to cars, but anything new was worthy of celebration in my mind.

Here is how it all played out. At that point in time, my father was working at the local medical clinic as the director of finance, and one of the doctors was selling his car. So, for $400, my father acquired a Renault Le Car (I am uncertain of the vintage year). It is a car not often seen in these parts, then or now. Perhaps the French do not like to export their cars to Americans. Anyway, the car itself was a hatchback, but these were not the coolest features to my 7 year-old mind. The two things that attracted my interest were the “sun roof” and the cassette deck.

I have used quotation marks for the “sun roof” because I’m not entirely certain it is the correct title. Essentially, it was a manual escape hatch. It was composed of some sort of tarp/plastic hybrid that had to be opened by hand and physically pushed up and backwards over the top of the car. There was no setting for in-between, it was all or nothing.

The cassette deck was not actually that amazing, but it was the first vehicle in our household to boast one as a feature. Not that I had any cassette tapes to play, but the mere thought that I could control the music of the car held infinite promise and power in my young mind. For your viewing pleasure, here is a picture of the car next to my mom around the time we purchased it:

This car has technically remained in my family to this day, although it is not currently in active duty. Here follows a brief synopsis. We obtained this car shortly before we moved to a new town. I believe we kept the car for at least another year or so before my father sold it to my uncle or grandpa on the farm. From that point onward, I saw very little of the Le Car (I realize it is improper French to say it this way, as it translates to “the the car,” but this is how we referred to it then and now). I have heard tales of my grandpa driving it to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport to pick up another one of my uncles at some point in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Therefore, I know for sure that it was capable of driving over 100 miles in one day. After my uncle on the farm met his future wife, the Le Car truly passed out of all knowledge for me. Sort of like the one ring in Lord of the Rings. It waited for its master’s call.

A couple of years ago, during a visit to my uncle’s farm, my father and I decided to explore some of the old buildings with my young cousins. I felt like Indiana Jones, off in search of undiscovered treasure. After looking in a few places, we came to an unused barn/granary at the front of the property. My father grabbed the handle of the door and it swung open. The only item inside was the long-lost Renault, under about 5 inches of dirt and hay dust. It was like discovering the Holy Grail.

I would love to say that we pulled the Le Car out of its drafty tomb and rebuilt the engine to make it a functional part of society. Sadly, we left it where it was and closed the door. I believe it is still in the same place at this moment. Even though it is not in use, it is very likely that it is presently one of the only cars of its kind in MN. By “of its kind,” I mean Renault Le Cars. I do not mean gray hatchback old model cars that do not work and are currently sitting in barns. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of those to be found. Who knows, it has perhaps become a home to a family of rodents or other critters that will get more use out of it than my family ever did.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Old man look at my life; I'm a lot more well behaved than you.

As I have already mentioned in my blog intro, I am 30 years old. Personally, I feel like severity of this number depends on the age of the observer. For instance, to an 18 year-old, I probably seem ancient, but to a 60 year-old, I’m still a spring chicken. Regardless of outward appearances, I discovered an alarming trait that has arisen that I can only attribute to the onset of old(er) age.

Last night, I attended concert for Neil Young with my parents and one of their college friends. It was an “intimate” performance in a smaller venue (relative to a stadium) and Neil performed all songs solo. I’ve never been a huge fan myself, but he is by far my father’s favorite performing artist, and I will admit that he is a bit of a rock legend, so I felt compelled to see him at least once in my (or his) lifetime.

Surprisingly I found his performance very entertaining. I don’t know how many people could get up by themselves in front of a crowd and calmly and proficiently perform a whole set of songs on various instruments with no backup musicians. There was not a lot of narrative between songs, which I personally appreciate, and the acoustics were great. This unexpected enjoyment is not, however, the source of my old age revelation.

The majority of the audience was closer to my parents’ age than mine, and given the relative intimacy of the venue and the lack of a big backup band, I mistakenly assumed that there would not be much by way of obnoxious crowd noise. I was sadly mistaken. Upon taking our seats before the concert, I was pleased to note that most of the people in our immediate vicinity appeared to be calm and subdued concert-goers who were there to really enjoy the music. Unfortunately, as the performance time crept closer, more people arrived, and the row of people behind us filled in with some loud and ridiculous fans.

Ridiculous Fan #1 was a gentleman from Pennsylvania who may be stalking Neil Young. Not only was he following Neil on several concert tour stops, but he had “found” Neil’s ranch/home in California that is apparently “very hard to find” as well as the name and location of the school Neil's children attend. I know this because he loudly befriended Ridiculous Fans #2-4 seated in his row. I would like to chalk up their willingness to accept and discuss this man’s strange obsession to pre-concert drinking, but further observation indicated that they were likely quite sober. The remaining three Ridiculous fans were apparently from MN, and they felt compelled not only to sing along on several songs, but to attempt to “harmonize” with Neil.

Other than the weird-o fans in my immediate seating area, there were several loud “shouters” throughout the entire show. While I can see how this may be acceptable at a sporting event or even a loud and raucous rock performance, why anyone would think that it was cool to scream commentary for a one-man show in a classy auditorium is a bit beyond my comprehension. I must therefore again attribute it to “liquid courage.”

All of this information is to support my subsequent “old lady” reaction. Before you get too excited, no, I did not stand up and go on a bloody rampage or even a heated tirade against these people. I merely did what I normally do: I stewed. I thought to myself, “My parents bought these tickets to hear Neil Young, not random women harmonizing over his voice and freaks shouting song requests and stupid commentary.” Keep in mind also that these “fans” were not drunk or rowdy college kids, these were certified baby-boomer adults. I’m not sure if they were attempting to re-live what they remembered as their glory/rocker days of yore. If so, and this is truly the behavior of Neil Young hippie/rockstar fans of the past, things really haven’t changed that much. I am here to tell you that young rock fans today are no more or less obnoxious than they were 30-40 years ago.

Thank you for listening to my rant. I would also like to add that my parents were not behaving like these noise-polluters. They were quiet and attentive despite the fact that it was as hot as the jungle inside. It is highly possible that the heat of the room may have contributed to my desire to have all offenders (including the morons who took flash photography during the show, even after being specifically told not to do so) thrown out onto the cold concrete steps of Northrup Auditorium. I feel much better after ventilating my thoughts. Please forgive me if I have offended anyone’s friends or family members who may behave in this manner on a regular basis. But honestly, if you are related to or are friends with anyone like these people, you probably secretly wish you could punch them too.

The moral of this story is this: you can keep on "rocking in the free world" all you want, just don't be obnoxious and piss me off. I am old and crabby and have no time for your shenanigans.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Medical Mysteries

I recently returned from my annual long-weekend vacation to Ely, MN. This has led me to ponder my relationship to wilderness/lake/nature and why I will never be called an “outdoorsy gal.”

First of all, please understand that I do enjoy nature in general. Generally, I do love jumping in the lake on a hot day or the feel of sunshine and a light breeze. Animals and plants are interesting to me. But this love is highly conditional. In my youth, the conditions were simple – as long I was not attacked by a bear or eaten alive by mosquitoes, all was right with the world. Now that I am an adult, I have developed a condition that has upset the balance: seasonal allergies.

I believe that I have been blessed with basically good health for my entire life. Occasionally I suffer from a cold or flu, but nothing worse. I was therefore unprepared for the bizarre onslaught of symptoms that began to appear in the warmer months of MN. In many ways, they mirrored a cold – stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, etc. The symptom that tipped me off to the fact that I might be dealing with a different beast altogether was the unprovoked eye-watering.

The first instance I can remember of non-emotional crying was while I was out for a friend’s birthday to a German bar for polka dancing. It was April, and the MN climate was starting to warm. Please note that at this time (the early 2000’s) MN had yet to enact its total public smoking ban. Also, the dance floor was located in the enclosed basement of the restaurant, making ventilation a slight issue.

At the time, I was in my early 20’s and still suffered under the delusion that I needed to look attractive in order to have a good time. I was dressed up in a cute but somewhat sexy top and the fancy jeans I had purchased on my trip to London. I wore extra make-up and was ready to polka.

About one hour into the festivities, I was standing by the edge of the dance floor chatting with some friends and trying to look cool when my eyes started to itch and burn. I tried blinking and rubbing my eyes to see if I had just caught some random chemical spray, but nothing helped. I looked around me through my bleary vision and noticed that no one else seemed to be suffering as I was. Pretty soon tears started running down my face and my friends started to become concerned. I assured them that I wasn’t becoming emotional over the upcoming performance of the Chicken Dance, but I knew something wasn’t right.

I retreated to the bathroom to assess the damage. It wasn’t too bad, but we didn’t stay too much longer after that. I was fine once we left the building, and I didn’t think too much more about it until the next time it happened later that summer. At first I was perplexed; I had no idea what was happening. I have never worn contact lenses, I do not wear a lot of eye makeup and am not fond of putting things near or into my eyes. It was not until one of my kind coworkers mentioned that she had acquired allergies as an adult that I began to suspect the true culprit.

All of a sudden, it was as if the universe fell into place; all of my mysterious “summer colds” could now be explained! My total nasal congestion that accompanied every visit to my aunt and uncle’s cat-inhabited house could be categorized! I could now join the elite group of people known as “seasonal allergy sufferers!” For a brief shining moment, I felt cool, popular and understood. Then, the disgusting tear and snot filled reality hit me like a hard pollen-filled blast of “fresh” air: I needed to find a cure.

I scanned through my usual source of medical wisdom,, for treatments. Many of my childhood friends were allergy victims, and I could recall their stories of “allergy testing” and “allergy shots” that sent chills down my spine due to my abject fear of needles. Therefore, I did what I usually do in the face of medical conundrums: self-diagnose. After minutes of deliberation, I was able to determine that the cause of my allergies were three main culprits: pollen, cats and cigarettes.

The first cause is pretty generic, but the last two were downright puzzling. First of all, I grew up with cats. I spent a great deal of time at houses with cats, and my family owned a cat for several years in my youth. Yet, whenever I spend more than one day at my aunt and uncle’s house, I find myself completely congested. Perhaps it is breed specific to Siamese cats. The final cause, cigarettes, is also bizarre. I grew up spending a great deal of time around my favorite cigarette smoker, my grandma. I even inherited her tobacco/nicotine-stained 1987 Chevy Celebrity as my first car and never shed a tear. Now, I can hardly spend more than two minutes in the presence of second-hand smoke before my eyes are running like faucets. Growing up is hard to do, indeed.

As for cures, I have found that Claritin (or its generic versions) is very effective for a non-drowsy option. The only downside to this treatment is that it seems to sap every ounce of personality from my body. All I want to do is sit and stare at things. This is OK when I’m at the lake because I can sit in a deck chair and stare at the water while working on my tan (or burn). This is NOT acceptable when I am at work staring at my stapler for 10 minutes.

I have heard that children who grow up with parents who are clean-freaks (i.e. constantly dusting, vacuuming, etc.) are more likely to have allergies. Obviously, my parents did me a favor by allowing me to grow up with dust, pollen, dander and other allergens, but I cannot figure out what has happened since. My world certainly has not become cleaner; housekeeping is not my forte. I can only surmise that it is some kind of cosmic or divine vengeance on me for being too smug towards my allergy-afflicted friends of my childhood. Either that or someone really wants me to know that air conditioning is better than fresh air, dogs are better than cats and drinking is a better vice than smoking. It’s just tough love, I suppose.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Noses - Post 3 of the "picking" series

OK, first of all, try and withhold your initial disgust and revulsion to the title of this entry. I have no intention of regaling you with a tale of nose-goblins and how to find them. My title was chosen because I felt that the “picking” series needed a third and final entry to be complete, and this entry does pertain a little bit to noses and nose-blowing habits.

Now that I have allayed your fears, I will proceed. Today’s inspiration came from my recent sinus infection and a conversation that happened between me and my family. Basically, it consisted of my brother and I reminiscing about the nose-blowing drama of our youth. Before I dive into that can of worms, perhaps I should share a little bit more about one of my idiosyncratic tendencies.

Since early childhood, I have harbored a strong aversion to touching substances that are slimy, sticky or of undeterminable origin. This manifested itself in various ways in my youth, especially in pre-school.

My first example involves paste. I’m referring to regular white Elmer’s paste that comes in the little plastic jars that have lids with the sticks attached. For some reason, this substance has been deemed acceptable for use by small children, most likely because it is non-toxic and children have a tendency to consume art supplies. This paste has the consistency of non-greasy butter and there are frequently chunks of more solid material mixed in with the creamier substance.

Apparently, when I was presented with paste to be used in arts and crafts, I outright refused to touch it. I was (and still am) a very stubborn person when faced with uncomfortable situations. In order to assuage my fears and encourage my creativity, the teacher came up with a solution. I was given a wet wash cloth to keep next to me at all times so that I could take a small dab of paste, smear it on my paper and immediately wipe off my fingers. I have obviously held on to some part of this behavior as anyone who has seen me eat food without utensils can attest. I would definitely not survive on a desert island without several tons of paper towels and napkins.

My second example relates to the rite of passage completed by all 5-year olds of making their mother a handprint picture. It is usually done in finger paints and is accompanied by a touchingly sappy poem reminding mothers that someday this cute little hand will grow up to be large and unattractive. I am the oldest child in my family, which means most major milestones were new and unexpected for me. When I encountered this handprint/fingerpaint ritual, I was troubled. I expect that my teacher was also perturbed as she did not wish to seem a failure and deny my mother this precious artifact.

By way of a compromise, I agreed to have my hand traced in pen. As the years passed and my brothers reached this milestone, they proved not to be as squeamish as I. My mother likes to bring out the three hands as proof that I am far more neurotic than most people realize.

I am not certain exactly what caused this aversion to touching non-solids, but I have a theory. Anyone who has spent time around toddlers recognizes the fact that their faces are often full of boogers. This is just a fact – kids attract germs and they lack the ability to clean themselves and rid themselves of their slime. One of the tricks parents teach their children to combat this occurrence is nose-blowing. Unfortunately, this habit is hard to learn and often leads to a different and more disgusting alternative: nose picking.

My own mother was strongly against nose picking. She was also against runny noses and sniffling. Honestly, if you had asked her 25 years ago to name the noises that annoyed her most, it would have been kids sniffling, my dad chewing and my dad snoring. I know the last two still bother her, but as she hasn’t had to listen to the first one for a while, she may have forgotten. This aversion strengthened her resolve to make us blow our noses on a regular basis. Whenever we would give a tiny snot-tinged sniffle she would come at us with a tissue, push it in our face and command, “BLOW!”

I wish I could say that this method worked. It should have worked. However, my brother and I are strange creatures. We rebelled against this seemingly straightforward and well-intentioned plan. Here is why: we were wussy kids with low pain thresholds and we let our congestion level go too far. Knowing my mother’s low tolerance for sniffles, we would endeavor to hide our stuffiness and pretend we were free and clear. This kept the tissue at bay temporarily, but it led to bigger problems. By the time my mom would catch on, our sinuses were so full that only high-powered hurricane level nose blowing would loosen and bring forth the detritus. Anyone who has attempted this kind of procedure knows that it usually has one major and painful side effect that involves ear popping.

This result was so painful that my brother and I avoided nose-blowing at all costs. This was shortsighted to be sure, but our young minds were not yet powerful enough to understand the cyclical nature of our dilemma. My mother, always a resourceful woman, retained one last weapon to use in her quest to slay the nose-goblins: the snot-sucker. I have no idea where this device originated, but I suspect it was sent home from the hospital after one of our births. It was a bit like a tiny turkey baster with a much smaller nozzle. It functioned largely the same way – by squeezing the rubber container, and releasing it with the nozzle in a child’s nose, the resulting suction could pull out even the most stubborn of snots. It was truly effective, but always a last resort. Needless to say, my brother and I saw a lot of this contraption.

My purpose for this story is to explain the after effect of the snot-sucker. As you can probably guess, the user was left with a rubber container full of child-boogers. It was not exactly a pleasant visual or tactile experience to clean. Not that I had to clean it myself, but I saw plenty of it in my days, and I believe that the memory of it contributed somewhat to my overall fear and dislike of all things bearing a likeness to its consistency.

To conclude, I can proudly say that my brother and I are both now fully capable of handling our own nose-blowing and that it is done in a timely manner, my mother still has the snot-sucker tucked away somewhere ready for the next generation of rugrats, and I still have no intention of ever touching paste or fingerpaint.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rocks - Post 2 of the "picking" series

By most standards, I can be classified as a “small-town girl.” Despite the fact that I currently reside in a suburban setting with frequent (sometimes daily) trips into the urban center (of MN), my roots are definitely based in the “out-state” mentality.

As I mentioned in my first entry, my father was a man of business for work and a man of science (fiction) for leisure. While he wears business suits every day to work, his roots are, in fact, even more rural than mine. To put it simply, my dad was a farm-boy. Not like Wesley in Princess Bride. More like Little House on the Prairie. He met my suburb-raised mother in college. Although my mother grew up in “the Cities” as the daughter of a teacher and a housewife, her roots are in agriculture as well. In fact, all four of my grandparents were raised on farms in rural MN. What this all says about me, I’m not exactly sure. But it will help to explain the story I’m sharing now.

As I stated, I did not grow up in a city. Our residences were usually located in small communities of about 12,000 to 20,000 people, mostly in MN. These locations were usually convenient for visiting family, mostly grandparents. While my mother’s parents lived in the Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), my paternal grandfather was still on the farm. This always made for some interesting visits.

Every visit to my grandpa’s farm was always filled with new adventure. Some of them were magical and fascinating, and some were downright horror-movie material. I shall likely make more of these visits part of subsequent entries, but as I am in a “picking” sequence, I am going to share my brief foray into child-labor field work.

For true farm kids, chores and other assorted farm work are standard. I’m not sure what each and every job consists of, but if my family’s stories are any indication, it’s pretty rough. No sleeping in until noon on Saturdays and lots of lifting, hauling and getting dirty. This pretty much went against the grain of my habits as a child and teenager entirely. This is why it was important that I learned at an early age that it was not the life for me.

From time to time, my brother and I were sent to stay with our farm grandpa all by ourselves. While I’d like to think this was purely for the bonding experience, I also suspect that my parents needed a break from us for extended periods of time. Activities at the farm were somewhat limited compared to home. Translation: the TV did not work. We found other means of entertainment, such as playing with the old electric organ, chasing cats and eating crackers (my grandpa cannot cook to save his life).

One summer when I was about 6 and my brother was maybe 4, my father informed us that our upcoming trip was to include a special treat. If my father said that to me now, I would have conducted a detailed interrogation. At age 6, I was a bit more trusting.

Upon arrival, we were given the exciting news: we were going ROCK picking! I had never heard of this type of picking, but I imagined it to be something like raspberry picking where we would leisurely stroll around the farm looking for interesting stones to put in our bucket or wagon or whatever. I was intrigued.
Our uniform for this outing was a bit more stifling than I was expecting. Long jeans, long-sleeve shirt and old tennis shoes seemed a bit odd for a leisurely exercise. We followed my grandpa out to the barn where the tractors were kept. He told us to wait and returned shortly driving a tractor with a flat trailer tethered behind. After loading us on to the trailer, I was a little nervous. While I was always a fan of the tractor rides and even trailer rides, this seemed like a hefty setup for picking up pretty rocks.

Our ride took us out into a plowed field and then stopped. Grandpa descended from the tractor and helped us off the trailer. By this point, I believe that my uncle had joined us in the field. The adults then began their demonstration of actual rock picking. To my dismay, this translated to my uncle dislodging large boulders from the earth and handing them to us for placement onto the flat trailer while my grandfather drove the tractor at a speed close to molasses.

From that point onward, the afternoon was a hot and grainy blur of boredom, anger and heat exhaustion. If anyone thought to bring water or snacks, it might have been bearable. But apparently 4 and 6 year old farm kids are tougher than that. I was not.

Looking back, I’m not sure why exactly my grandpa thought that such young children would be any actual help as our puny arms could not lift most of the rocks that we found. I imagine that he saw it as an act of character building that would benefit us in the long-run. Or he just thought it would be really funny. My grandpa has a weird sense of humor sometimes.

After our long day in the fields, we returned to the house. We were immediately whisked off to the bathroom for clean-up, but we did manage a good look in the mirror before the bathing commenced. It was a horrific yet mesmerizing sight. Dirt and dust had filled in every single line and crevice of our exposed skin, mainly on our faces. I really wish someone had thought to take a picture. After we were thoroughly scrubbed and our scalps scoured with what felt like steel wool, we were allowed to rest. I’m sure we slept VERY well that night.

Oddly, we were never taken out rock picking ever again in our childhood. Nor have we been asked to help now that we are capable adults. The motive and purpose for this one time event remains a mystery. I know that the process still happens and that my younger cousins have assisted many times. My only conclusion is that it was an attempt to give my brother and I some farm/street credibility. I will therefore wear this accomplishment as a badge of honor for proof that I am not just some wussy city girl. In case anyone ever asks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Raspberries - Post 1 of the "Picking" Series

As a child, I believed my father to be a super-mad-scientist-genius. Not only did he wear glasses and resemble the classic nerd of media presentation, but he was an accountant and used a lot of fancy calculators/computers/machines with buttons. He was also capable of driving a car, tractor and running a lawn mower while occasionally reading science fiction (not at the same time). Who was I to doubt his mechanical abilities?

In days of yore, my parents went through a brief period of gardening euphoria. The chief produce of this period was our field of raspberries. They consumed our entire garden space, and were a convenient snack source for most of the summer. Every once in a while, at the request of my mother, a concentrated raspberry gathering was initiated. While picking random berries for immediate consumption never was difficult, picking berries to be placed in buckets for “later” was not as rewarding. Plus, those bushes had prickles.

You can therefore imagine my delight when my father announced that he was going to make us a “raspberry picker.” Immediately, visions of robot minions filled my head. They would take on the task of finding berries (always a time-consuming project), picking the right specimens and presenting them to my mother. It was perfect, most of all because robots, being made of metal, would be impervious to the prickles. Here is an illustration of the event as no photographs remain to document the occasion:

When the day finally arrived for construction/unveiling of the new prototype, my father summoned me to the garage. I excitedly scanned the area for gears, metal sheeting and wires, but there were none to be found. I didn’t even see any power tools or welding equipment. Instead, my father pulled a box-cutter out of his pocket and walked over to our garbage area. I then watched in astonishment as he picked up an empty plastic gallon milk jug and proceeded to cut a hole in the top side opposite the handle. I was struck dumb in confusion. It was all over in a matter of seconds and I found myself presented with the finished product.

My first thought was that this was to be perhaps a holding mechanism for bolts or nails. I fiercely hoped that this was not the entirety of the construction phase. Possibly sensing my confusion, my father informed me that this was the fabulous contraption itself, the raspberry picker. I remained doubtful that this piece of plastic would successfully be able to locate and pick anything other than dust or rain, but I followed my father out to the garden to witness a demonstration. To my astonishment, my father proceeded to manually pick berries and deposit them into the newly altered container. After about 30 seconds of this procedure, my disappointment solidified. I had been duped. I somehow managed to make it through one round of picking before I had to creep away and mourn the loss of my gardening robot minion army.