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Archive for the ‘midwest living’ Category

It’s winter in the Upper Midwest. And because December and January have delivered on their promises to bring snow and cold to Minnesota, many local friends and coworkers are now lamenting winter’s stranglehold on the Twin Cities.

I truly don’t mind that the mounds of snow at the end of the driveway are past my shoulder in height. And, I could care less that so far this year we’ve received an above average amount of snow from Mother Nature. Consider it her gift to those of us bold enough to live here.

Still, it’s amusing how weather conditions dominate so much of our day-to-day lives.

In the past 72 hours I’ve heard or seen a fistful of news packages about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - a condition caused, primarily, by lack of natural sunlight exposure. Like many forms of depression, a person with SAD can wind up unable to perform normal daily activities, like brushing his or her teeth. It’s a for-real disorder and I’m not making fun of it. We’ve all experienced those blah/blues moments…they just seem to peak in mid-January and February for those in the northern hemisphere.

Commute times to and from work are another sore subject. Just this Monday/Tuesday, the Twin Cities metro received between 3 and 5 inches of fresh snow. Of course it all fell during morning and afternoon rush hour periods. The result? Spin out accidents and traffic slowed to a standstill for practically 36 hours. Now a normal, non-resident might think most Minneapolites and Saint Paulville people would become used to winter driving conditions once February rolled around.

Wrong-o.

During this morning’s slippery-road-condition-commute I was witness to Escalade drivers weaving in and out of traffic like it was a July 4 weekend trip to the north woods. Plus, I wound up behind two different cars with rear windows completely covered in a layer of snow driving up 35W in the fast lane. Hellooooo snow scraper/brush thingy?!?! Let’s be a little courteous and try fixing the visibility problem before taking the car onto the freeway. Oh, if you have a rear window wiper built into your Toyota Rav4, turn it on for chrissakes!

Fortunately, in another 58-88 days the bulk of winter’s blast will be over and Minnesotans can start bitching about the humidity and high winds blowing in from Canada or North Dakota.

Come August, though, I’ll be eyeing my cross country skis and pining for fresh snow.

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When I was a kid in the 70s, we played kick the can.

Almost every night during summer, when the sun went down, kids in the neighborhood gathered in a back yard with the Folgers or Maxwell House coffee can — or a Well’s Blue Bunny ice cream bucket (gallon-sized) — for an hour or two of hiding and kicking and getting grass stains on our knees. Lots of debate on who was or wasn’t adhering to the rules would ensue. And honestly, I can’t even remember the rules. It didn’t matter then or now.

My kids never experienced the thrill of rushing into a wide open space and sliding into or kicking a can so they wouldn’t have to be “it.” Technology usurped those summer evening back yard games.

I marvel in both admiration and horror as my son now sits and spends his evening with a head set and portable computer chatting in real-time with friends as he plays computer war games.

While the Folgers Coffee can has been replaced with other technology, I’m not so sure it’s ALL for the better.

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It took the 11 years and four treks, but I’ve made friends with the North Shore of Minnesota – a stretch of Lake Superior shoreline, highway, infamous landmarks, and seasonal resorts.

Up until now, my travels that direction epitomized the word miserable. Few other places in the country boast about bad weather to attract tourists, but for those in Duluth and points north along the treacherous northwest shore of Lake Superior, bad weather is a piece of nearly every historical moment worth noting. For me, one late summer trip several years ago featured horizontal rain and high winds for two straight days. A second venture resulted in a foot of snow and high winds. The third trip, a late April getaway, included some sun, but the wind blew so fierce it might as well have been the Antarctic. This pattern seems to be the norm.

The vistas and opportunities to hike, bike and relax in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota are too numerous to ignore…and so away we went on Saturday to kick off Labor Day weekend 2010.

And brother, we hit the weather jackpot.

Two full days of “sunny and mid- to upper-60s farenheit” ruled our short getaway. On Day One, the lofty cotton-ball-esque dotted skies served as a personal tour guide as we hiked miles and miles of the Superior Hiking Trail – enough steps to make our feet, calves, knees and thighs tell us “enough.” If you haven’t stepped onto a piece of the 270-plus miles of this trail, add it to your bucket list. And while you’re at it, make sure to take the Lookout Mountain trail section for a scene unlike any other you’ll find in Minnesota.

That evening we ate and slept in Grand Marais. Our dinner bell rang at The Crooked Spoon, a crowded cafe on Wisconsin Street where the chef served up a wicked lamb tenderloin and the most beautiful leafy green salad I’ve ever seen. And while very much a tourist town, for a Saturday night, Grand Marais seemed very quaint and quiet overlooking a calm Lake Superior.

On a cloudless Day Two, Cheri and I biked the Pincushion Mountain trail, just a couple miles from Grand Marais off the Gunflint Trail highway. Leaving the town, this highway rises over 1,000 feet in just 2.5 miles or so. After completely wasting our legs peddling the mountain bike trail, I coasted back in to Grand Marais – nearing 40 mph on two wheels and barely turning the crank.

Another hike on the Superior Hiking Trail to take in Devil’s Kettle gave new meaning to late summer in Northern Minnesota. As we sat on the rocks of the Brule River watching the falls the color was unbelievable. From the rocks to the sharp dark walls of the river’s gorge to the green chlorophyl-laden shrubs and trees to a clear blue sky. Now that’s what being outdoors is suppose to be about.

Lesson learned. The North Shore may be unforgiving at times with its wind, driving rain and lake effect snows, but pick your moment and place and you can be pleasantly surprised by the gift of such a place. And you may, like me, make friends with a piece of America that you had for awhile given up on.

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My Dad marched to the beat of his own drum. He set his own standards, and while they changed through my childhood years, the bar and his expectations were always higher than I was tall.

rhg-wwiiDad was a product of a rough and tumble father and a mother who only knew how to love and care for others – no matter what. I guess his lack of emotion, his inability to truly display love, only became evident in hindsight – because as a kid, even when he failed to properly parent, I felt loved.

We didn’t spend a lot of time playing ball in the backyard, because Dad owned a small business and put in long hours. So instead, I often biked to Dad’s shop and swept or cleaned the work benches until he was ready to lock up – usually after Mom’s third or fourth phone call. On the way out of the shop door, he’d drop a dime in the pop machine and hand me an Orange Crush Soda for the short ride home.

My best Dad memories, though, involve the after-hours deliveries we’d make on warm summer evenings. Dad sold outdoor equipment and he would drive within a 100-mile radius to deliver a lawn tractor to a good customer. I’d help unload the equipment off the trailer and he would demo the machine, chatting up the new owner while I kicked at the stones eager to head back home.

We’d climb back into the red Dodge van he drove (purchased the year I was born) and he would steer us down Northwest Iowa county blacktops – back to Spencer. At five or six years old, I marveled at how many people knew my Dad as we made these trips together. I’d see a car or truck approaching us and nearly every single time, the driver in the oncoming car would wave – and Dad waved back.

“Who was that?” I’d ask him eagerly.

“I couldn’t quite make out the face,” Dad would say with a grin. Or, he’d say, “I think that was Jim from the hardware store,” or he would make up the names of other people he knew, completely BS-ing me.

Eventually, it dawned on me that we were out in the country and these other drivers were just being friendly, waving as they passed every car they met. But for a few years, at least, I believed Dad was the best-known man in the state of Iowa – or at least our corner of the state. He was my well-connected Dad and I was proud of him.

Dad died on Sunday and he’ll be buried back in my hometown today. We rarely spoke these past couple decades. Distance created distance and days lapsed into years.

But I’ll call upon the best memories I have of him. And if there’s a Heaven, I know my Dad has been greeted by the hundreds who waved at him on those summer evenings when it was just the two of us on the road.

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I’m intolerant today. So…

To the Red River, Fargo, Moorehead – and the two 100-year-floods which happened within six years of each other:

Folks, if you knowingly live in a flood plain, quit your whiney complaining. Your options, as you have known since the time you bought the property included flood insurance, sandbags and flood waters. If standing in your living room waist deep in Red River water is no longer fun for you, simply move.

And, City Fathers of both Fargo and Moore(dunder)head: Who are the Ph.Ds who voted to build a public school in a flood plain. Sheesh. I guess just a few hundred thousand people live in Nort’ Dakota for a reason.

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Elitists feel they have outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or some other distinctive attributes, and therefore their views and ideas must be taken more seriously or carry more weight. In addition, they may assume special privileges and responsibilities and feel they have earned certain rights that others do not or should not have based on their level or position in society.

The proliferation of elitism has been underway since the dawn of human kind. What’s become worse in the past two decades is how many people automatically place themselves into this elitist category with no basis of reason. As populists in society strive toward breaking down the walls and barriers created by the elite (to ensure everyone has the same human rights and opportunities), elites attempt to further widen and deepen their moat protecting their belief that the privileged few have every right to make and enforce the rules.

What’s more, the new elites stem from recent generations of children who grew up expecting life to be handed to them in perfect order – further widening the gap between the haves and have nots. In fact, the common middle class that most of us grew up in, has now latched firmly on to the orbit of the elite.

The hard work our mothers and fathers once performed – the work that made our nation strong – has been tossed out with the bath water in the past 20 years. The yuppies, Gen-Xers and Millenials feel society owes them the vast rewards of life simply for waking up and putting on their socks.

And since elitism endorses the exclusion of large numbers of people from positions of privilege or power, this class in our society is essentially turning its collective head further and further away from its roots – away from the very parents or grandparents who worked two shifts so the family could enjoy a warm home, a reliable car and new shoes as the kids’ feet grew. Today, the 4,000-square-foot homes, Beemers, Audis and Mercedes are not the exception, they are the rule.

I’m sick and I’m tired of 20-somethings and younger walking around with their hands out – like baby birds waiting to be fed and chirping their beaks off until the mother Robin satiates their demands. These kids, our children, are clueless. They lack responsibility, respect and a fundamental concept of what labor is all about.

How are we suppose to begin fixing the recent economic malaise in the United States and globally, when our “most valuable asset,” our best and brightest, are entering the workforce with no concept of what work is all about? The learnings that once came with earning a decent wage for a decent day’s work are gone.

We’ve created the “gimme” culture of elitists and I’ve never been more personally disgusted and disappointed by a mind set than this one.

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Christmas time is here
We’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year”

Plenty of Christmas childred-treehood memories float around my head this time of year. Like the several-year-stretch of purchasing flocked Christmas trees from Del’s Garden Center in Spencer, Iowa. Dad and Mom even bought a red flocked tree (around 1972, I think). It seems a heinous act, flocking a poor evergreen, but back in the ’70s it was the “in” thing to do and Del’s flocked Christmas trees like nobody’s business.  For those of you unfamiliar with the process, they basically stick the tree in a paint room on a stand that spins in a circle while a thick coating of foam-like, dyed flocking material covers every branch and needle. Instead of vacuuming up dried needles on New Year’s Day, we vacuumed red flocking attached to dried needles. It was stunning stuff.

One of my best Christmas memories involves Uncle Floyd and Aunt Evelyn. Floyd worked for my Dad who owned a machine shop and small-engine repair business. (Floyd and Evelyn were not actual relatives BTW). Floyd should have been retired, but Dad had a soft spot for Floyd who was a fountain of information when it came to mechanics.  The aged Floyd and Evelyn lived in a little town, Sioux Rapids, about 20 miles from our home. Each Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would collect them and host them for dinner. Evelyn made delicious caramel pecan rolls, and it would kill me to sit in the backseat of the car with those rolls waiting until we got home before I could indulge. A few years back, I began my own attempt in mimicking the creation of those pecan rolls. Both Floyd and Evelyn have passed away, so I turned to the Google and after trying a couple recipes and combining a few things, I landed on what I believe is a very close caramel pecan roll recipe that would make Evelyn proud. It’s a tribute of sorts to them both and the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners of my youth.

Some traditions fade away – while others remain or re-occur or begin. Gone are the days of flocked trees but those pecan rolls are back in my life. And my two kids, who practically peed their pants in anticipation of Santa’s secret visit and the  gifts he left them for Christmas morning, are teenagers. The excitement may be (mostly) in the past, but the spirit and intention that comes with spending time together making a dinner, playing cards or watching a movie remains anticipated and important.

Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

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