Friday, July 31, 2009

Montana Stories

Last weekend was full of people telling stories. My favorite was from Steve's mom Betty, who had just returned from Missoula, Montana visiting her brother Art (Annie, Tim, Sophia and Betty drove straight through, 17 hours). I would love to meet Uncle Art, who gave us a good deal on my wedding ring and sounds like someone from my own extended family-- a character.

Art has the entrepreneurial spirit I associate with his father, so it clearly runs on both sides of Steve's family. When Art was a young dairy farm on his parents' farm in Faribault, Minn., with a wife and a few kids, he kept his eyes open for a Dairy Queen franchise. And one day a friend called and said there was one for sale, advertised in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that morning, though it was in Missoula, Montana. Art and his wife got someone to stay with the kids and headed West on an Amtrack train. The porters on the train were very taken by his story and told him to be sure to take the Saturday train back when they would be returning to Chicago. He did, and by then he'd bought the place.

When he started, he found out pretty soon it would be a tough business. One customer came in and asked him if he knew the previous owner had gone bankrupt. "And he hung himself in the bathroom right back there," the customer said, pointing. Well, Art had known, but it hadn't stoppped him.

His big break came when the company he bought hotdogs from delivered footlongs instead of the regular size ones by mistake. He called and asked about the mistaken order. They said it was OK, to go ahead and keep the footlongs at the same price. Art ran some ads for his footlongs for $1 and served them sticking out of the shorter bun. It was a huge success, and there were lines out the door. The footlong hotdog on a short bun is still a feature of the Dairy Queen at Higgins and Grand in Missoula.

Another thing he did was to trim the unwieldy hedges in front of the store to look like a soft-serve ice cream cone. He fixed the place up, did some landscaping, and he put a lot of energy into writing jingles that he ran on the radio. Always advertising-- he still has some of those ads in his house today.

These days he's retired, though he was up to three Dairy Queens, and his family still runs two of them. From his house up on the top of the bowl that is Missoula, he can look through the big picture window with his binoculars and see the original store at Higgins and Grand. He likes to check it out and see how busy it is. That is, when he isn't busy talking to the coin dealers he knows around town, or organizing his watch collection.

He made many trips back and forth from Minneapolis to Missoula on the train. One memorable trip he was on the train with Muhammed Ali. They played Old Maid for hours and hours, and Muhammed Ali signed one of the cards for him. He has the picture one of the porters took of them hanging in his living room.

I really do hope I get to see it someday.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Zucchini Curry

I've got zucchini like crazy in the garden right now, so am breaking out the recipes. usually I just slice it (with my mandoline), marinate about 5 minutes in balsamic vinegar and a little oil, and put them on the grill. But here's a real dish...

Zucchini Curry

½ tsp cumin
1 garlic clove
2 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp curry powder
¼ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp of jalapeno, other chili
or Thai curry paste
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
6 medium zucchini, cut in ½ inch slices
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
¼ cup cilantro
½ cup roasted cashews, chopped (optional)

Smash garlic, chili/curry paste, ginger, salt, coriander, curry powder and cumin into a curry paste. Heat oil in a heavy pot and sauté onion until golden, about 8 minutes. Add curry paste you made above and cook over med-low heat, stirring, 2 minutes. Add zucchini and cook, stirring, until it appears moist, 3-5 mins. Add coconut milk and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is just tender, 10-12 minutes. Serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro and cashews.

Comment: I adapted this from a more complicated recipe. It’s a great vegetarian meal. It called for fresh jalapeno pepper but I use a teaspoon of Thai red or green curry paste (use your
judgment as to heat) when I sauté the onion and then just add the garlic and other spices with the zucchini. Use quality curry powder, and it’s up to you if you want to add the extra cumin and
coriander, since these are both in curry powder already. It also calls for another tsp of salt added
with the zucchini, but I usually forget to put any salt in at all!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Prairie Love

Today was our first wedding anniversary. I spent some time out photographing different wildflowers on our prairie, and then more over at Tim and Annie's. I was able to capture and identify 24 varieties of wildflowers-- plus the little and big bluestem grasses. I put them on Facebook with IDs. To see them, click here. I hope it works!

The king of all flowers, at least on our prairie, is the gray-headed coneflower. I particularly like it when they're just pushing their petals out, before they fall like skirts below them.

I used the Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers field guide by Doug Ladd through the Nature Conservancy for most of the IDs. The link is to the second edition... the one we have is no longer available I think. It's really difficult to identify flowers by photo... this one was pretty good, though!

In addition I took photos of the lead plant, purple-headed coneflower, blue vervain, asters, white prairie clover and purple prairie clover, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, water hemlock, germander, milkweed, butterfly milkweed bush, prairie coreopsis, golden coreopsis, goldenrod, prairie coneflower, and several things I can't remember at the moment... but which I'll name as I fall asleep.

Art in the Provinces

My father just wrote to me to say how much he enjoyed Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. He thought I might find something in common with the main character, a librarian from St. Paul who marries a doctor from Gopher Prairie and moves with him out to small-town Minnesota (Sauk Centre to be precise) where she tries to influence the reading tastes of the town.

I don't find this area to be terribly provincial. People are particularly well read, and I don't get much time to read, and I read slowly, and I don't ever look down on anyone for that. I don't know much about classical music, either, but I do have some good CDs and have attended concerts in LA, Chicago and New York. And so it is that every once in awhile, I'm treated to a scene worthy of Sinclair Lewis.

One of my favorite books is Willa Cather's My Antonia. There is a wonderful scene in there where the narrator of the book, Jim Burden, and the hired girl Lena, who has made her way as a seamstress, meet up when Jim is in college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Jim begins by saying that whenever he smells lilacs he thinks of going to the theater in Lincoln with Lena that spring. At the theater they're treated to what is clearly a horribly acted, miscast play, a version of Dumas' Camille. Nonetheless, never having seen "real" theater before, they're utterly captivated. Jim says of the woman playing the lead, "I suppose no woman could have been further in person, voice and temperament from Dumas' appealing heroine than the veteran actress who first acquainted me with her. Her conception of the character was heavy and uncompromising as her diction; she bore hard on the idea and on the consonants. At all times she was highly tragic, devoured by remorse. Lightness of stress or behaviour was far from her. Her voice was heavy and deep: "Ar-r-r-mond!" she would begin, as if she were summoning him to the bar of Judgment. But the lines were enough. She had only to utter them. They created the character in spite of her."

And of the music, Jim narrates: "Between the acts we had no time to forget. The orchestra kept sawing away at the Traviata music, so joyous and sad, so thin and far-away, so clap-trap and yet so heart-breaking. After the second act I left Lena in tearful contemplation of the ceiling, and went out into the lobby to smoke. As I walked about there I congratulated myself that I had not brought some Lincoln girl who would talk during the waits about the junior dances..."

Thursday night we paid too much money to go to an outdoor concert at one of the nearby colleges. It was a performance of Civil War-era music, interspersed with Looney Tunes and Three Stooges shorts set in the Civil War. The musicians were the local faculty classical ensemble.

The music was not Civil war-era. There were two pieces by Dvorak written in the 1890s. One I knew very well, and so my ear was quite bothered by the sawing away of the cellist and one of the violinists. The very large mezzo-soprano did a very dramatic rendering of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."

But the concert was made very enjoyable-- for me at least-- by the audience, particularly three drunken members of the audience, one a man in a cowboy hat, and two women, one more drunk than the other.

When the cellist came out at first for the first piece (ca. 1892), she began by saying she would not be in her usual spot because she was working hard to keep the instrument in tune despite the humidity. "This afternoon at rehearsal, my D string was just wild!"

To which the cowboy loudly whooped, "You G string? Did you say you lost your G string? Whoo hoo!"

She played the piece, just fine, and when it was over the very drunk woman said very loudly, "Wow. I bet she could play Chopin."

To which the cowboy replied, "Oh, you're going to hear all sorts of good music tonight, alright. All sorts of good music."

A few numbers later, a pianist took the stage, James A. The cowboy knew the man: "Piano Jim! There's piano Jim! Oh boy, he's good. Wait until you hear this."

Piano Jim was probably the best of the musicians, but he was having a bad night. He started the first piece and after about 30 seconds, cowboy said, "This sounds like something from the Wizard of Oz, don't it?" It very soon afterward left the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" theme that was faint to say the least. The song took off, but Piano Jim had a little difficulty keeping up with it. Afterwards, despite the very enthusiastic applause, he somewhat stormed off the stage, disappointed and frustrated with himself.

There were other, less memorable, outbursts by the trio of fans during the first act. Every time one of them made noise, a very indignant 13-year-old girl in the front row with her parents would turn around and glare. She was no doubt a student of one of the musicians, and had seen how classical audiences, outside or no, were supposed to behave during performances.

After the break we moved back and I got an Adirondack chair to sit in. I was behind some very well-behaved Asian girls who may have been on campus for a camp. It was dark enough to show the Looney Tunes short, which one of the girl taped in almost its entirety on her tiny digital camera. As I watched, the three Asian girls took an average of 5 photos a minute of the performance. I would have to say their experience was almost completely mediated by their digital cameras.

By the time the Three Stooges started, the mosquitoes had arrived. I have never understood what makes the Three Stooges funny, and so, eaten alive under the darkening Minnesota sky, we decided to forego the last tune.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Great Emergence

I've been reading Phyllis Tickle's book The Great Emergence, with my skeptic heart engaged and as open as I can pry it, and the book has definitely resonated with me. Resonated is a word I would like to not allow myself, but there it is. I'm involved in all sorts of new ways of thinking and being because of the monastery-- right now I've been grappling with what they mean by "discernment." There is even a "discernment process" used by the monastery for making large decisions, that involves going in and out of group discussion/feedback and individual contemplation. And I think it works for the community, if it works, because these women pray the Liturgy of the Hours and are engaged in daily lectio divina, contemplative reading of Scripture. This practice builds in them a present-consciousness and awareness the likes of which I've never seen-- and which I've seen and remarked on quite regularly in the Benedictine monastics I know. It makes for an incredibly tuned-in community of fierce, smart women.

Today I read chapter 4, and at the end of the chapter she names the "essential questions" of our time, a time of upheaval in the underlying systems of meaning that have guided Western humanity for the past 500 years, questions that we ask because of Darwin, Faraday, Freud, Jung, Einstein and more recently Joseph Campbell. The three essential questions are:
"1: Where, now, is the authority?...
2:What is human consciousness and/or the humanness of the human?
3: What is the relation of all religions to one another-- or, put another way, how can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world of many religions?" (Tickle, pp. 72-73).

Well, I thought to myself, those are the three central questions addressed in my second book of poetry. Those are exactly the questions that I've been thinking about and asking myself about for most of my life-- certainly since I was twelve years old and we converted overnight from Catholicism to the Assemblies of God. And, in fact, the authority question is the one question hanging over all the women's religious orders of the United States at the moment, because Rome is attempting through an Apostolic Visitation what seems to be a "slap down" of their individual authority for what seems like no good reason at all. And personally, not speaking here in any way for the monastery or any of its members, I suspect Rome has overstepped and will find out that the "people in the pews" don't care what Rome thinks. I think it will be, if not the end, a blow to that particular authority. And don't take my word for it-- read the 420 comments posted to the New York Times front page coverage of the Apostolic Visitation and two other investigations and criticisms of women religious by American bishops and Rome.

In the discernment process, the community is asking: "What do you believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to given what we know?" It is a question that can only lead to boldness, I think, in facing the future and in walking into whatever new world we find ourselves in.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sesame Chicken Pasta Salad

Steve's daughters Catherine and Julia were visiting last week and I made a pasta salad for a family gathering. One of my vegetarian cookbooks I went to for advice said simply, "Do not make pasta salad. Pasta does not have the right consistency for a salad, and mixing it with mayonnaise is not the answer." It hadn't seemed like a snobby cookbook until right then. I went to my second source, "" and found a simple Asian-inspired pasta salad. I had all the ingredients and a good idea how to adapt it to make it much better. When it was done, Catherine said I had "hit this one right out of the park." And further, that it "is blogworthy." I needed a subject for a blog entry, so here's the recipe, with significant enough variations to call my own. The proportions are a little rough, as I more than doubled the recipe I found online, and am cutting it back here. So use your own judgment as to the proportions...

Susan's Sesame Chicken Pasta Salad

10 oz. short pasta (gemelli, rotini, bowties, etc)
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup vinegar: half rice wine and half white wine
3 Tbsp canola oil
1 Tbsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp sugar
4 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 chicken breasts, cooked and chopped
2 cups snow peas, savoy cabbage or spinach (chopped)
3/4 cup sliced green onions
3/4 cup cashews, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley
1 thinly diced roasted red pepper would also help add color

Cook pasta according to package directions. In a jar with a lid, combine the soy sauce, vinegars, oil, sugar, sesame seeds, salt and pepper; shake well. Drain pasta and rinse in cold water to stop cooking; place in bowl. Add chicken and half of the dressing; toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Just before serving, add the snow peas or cabbage (steamed to wilted stage or fresh and crunchy), green onions, parsley, cashews and remaining dressing. Toss to coat.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jubilarians 2009

(click on photo for a larger view)

I have stuck very close to my professional ethics when writing about the monastery. One of the rules I made for myself was not to use photographs that I have access to because of my job. But for this photo, taken with my own camera, I'm going to make an exception. I don't think any of the jubilarians will mind, and really, it felt like a personal photo when I took it. These 16 women celebrated 50 years of vowed religious life at the monastery today-- all weekend, really. All year, if you count the numerous private celebrations, hometown Masses, and other parties. They even had a gathering of all the living members of their class of 1959, including several who left the monastery to get married in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s after the Second Vatican Council. One in their number, a Chinese Sister, is a permanent member of the Taiwan mission, now an independent priory, and so was not here.

So think about a 50th wedding celebration, if you've attended or experienced one. In this German Catholic area, the 50th wedding anniversary is usually marked by a Mass, a giant party with all the relatives, and an article in the newspaper.

We do the same thing at the monastery, in this case times 16. Months ago we wrote up profiles for each of the Sisters and they all went in our magazine. This weekend's celebration began on Friday with a party just within the community. The Sisters were making flower arrangements for days. And Sister Geraldine, in the center top row just behind the prioress (who is in the blue suit and not a jubilarian), who has wonderful memories of cooking at Red Lake Mission and has spent the past 20 years working in the copy shop for the College of Saint Benedict, said she was happily "baking and baking and baking" bread and pies for the weekend's celebrations. When I left work on Friday, there was a row of 16 bottles of red wine (Riunite and Sutter Home!!!) with single roses in vases and cards by each one, prepared for the night's festivities.

Sunday, though, is the big day. The Sisters can invite family to a luncheon after the Mass, and I heard one Sister say the dining room "was approaching unsafe." It was packed with extra tables and chairs, and volunteers were putting on the cloths and silverware. Each Sister had made elaborate, individual placecards. Calligraphy, quilling, and even tatting were on display on the cards. I was there to oversee the professional photograph, and the photographer was having so much time he threw in an extra half hour of candid shots. He said to me, "This is like a wedding." I said, "Yes, times 16." There was the wonderful "surprise" guests, S. Christine's niece from Arkansas who flew in for the occasion, and the two of them embraced and cried, so happy to see each other. I think a lot of people must be the nieces and nephews of nuns. I've learned of several who surprised me since taking this job. Everyone loves their aunts who are nuns.

In addition to the Mass and the luncheon, they can invite as many people as they want to an afternoon reception. These receptions occupy every available space, and the grounds were covered with signs directing folks to "Sister Marlene's party, this way" and "Parking for Sister Geraldine this way." Sister Geraldine, who has 78 nieces and nephews and extensive connections at the college, was expecting 200 guests at her party. She needed her own parking lot.

I wasn't there for the afternoon celebrations, just the preparations. But Steve and I were biking past the Monastery in downtown St. Joseph on our way home from a long bike ride and I heard one woman on the street talking to two others: "I'm just coming from Sister Georganne's reception, are you going over to Sister Mary's?" What a lovely thing, 16 grand parties, and an 80-degree sunny day on which to walk around the monastery and visit with these wonderful Sisters and all their families and friends.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July Prairie

I thought you might like to see the results of the controlled burn we did in April, namely, the summer prairie. Steve's still in the process of restoring it, so in addition to the controlled burn, areas that were heavy with weeds, basically where the prairie grass and flowers had not fully taken hold, were also sprayed with Round-Up herbicide as they started to come up. This means there is a huge swath that is dead to the ground. Also, you can see in that photo the two stunted oak trees that basically caught fire as it went through. They're alive at the top, holding on, but it's not good. However, it is also very clear that the prairie that was burned and allowed to come in-- the prairie that had taken hold-- is much more vibrant and beautiful than it was even last year.

This is just the beginning of blooming, but it's maybe my favorite time in the prairie life cycle. The purple flowers are bergamot (though I can't figure out their relationship, if any, to Earl Grey tea, which is infused with bergamot orange, an Asian citrus plant). I love the bergamot, even more than the popular cone flowers. There are wild rudbeckia, sort of a sissy version of the black-eyed Susan I planted in my garden from the nursery. There are the grasses-- the little blue stem and the "big blue," and everything else seems mostly like potential. I'll post agian when the cone flowers take over-- it is pretty spectacular. Right now I'm enjoying that I can walk out and cut down bergamot, which live longer than other wildflowers once cut, and add a really graceful appearance to the table.

In terms of the vegetable garden, it's actually starting to produce. I even picked and ate 4 beautiful, red cherry tomatoes today. I have three zuchinni and for a week have been picking small batches of snow peas, for use in salads and the occasional stir-fry. The full-size tomato plants are loaded down with small tomatoes and the cherry tomato plants will clearly produce a few batches of salsa. In terms of zucchini-- well, we're covered. The only thing I'm really curious about is the brussel sprouts. I can't wait to see the flower shoot up and all the little sprouts appear. What a sweet day that will be.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


This afternoon we went to see neighbors who have chickens. They have six children, and the dad built a chicken coop that is sort of like a habitrail, with a little run between the open coop and the covered coop. I thought they might have two or three chickens, since they live in a little neighborhood that I'm sure is not supposed to have chickens living in it, but no, they have 23. That means they lost one of the two dozen chickens they bought. They have a dozen white chickens they're raising for slaughter, and another 11 that will be layers. The white chickens are depressing as all get out. They're fat, and already after six weeks having trouble supporting themselves on their stubby little legs. They are hybrids, called "Rocker X" chickens, a mix between a rock hen and some other chicken. I would not want to raise, nor eat, one of these chickens-- it's hard to see how they're better than those bought in the stores. I said, "So is this the chicken Gold 'n Plump is raising at their family farms?" Cause there's more to it than the farm raising, to be sure.

So yes, they are "free range," in that their beaks aren't cut off and they aren't stuck in little holes one hundred to a tight area. But they have two weeks to live and they're not getting around so easy already. They don't go beyond the coop-- airy and sunny to be sure, and they can barely squeeze themselves through the "chicken run" separating the inside from the outside. They eat what they're fed. The boys do stick collard greens through to them to eat, and they rush to the chicken wire to nibble it down. Mostly they get "feed," which I'm sure is mostly corn.

Accordng to my brother-in-law Tim, there is a Chinese couple who live in the development with a dozen chickens they're feeding rice. The chickens are about half the size of Tim's. But rice is surely the equivalent of corn in China, a grain after all, so who's to say what is best?

Tim and Annie have 15 chickens, all brown and all layers. They are truly free range-- walk around the farm eating grass and jumping up into the lower branches of the pine trees. A couple of them wander the grassy area we call the commons-- good to have a buddy system going in case there are predators around. Still, they mostly eat feed, prepared by Purina, so who knows. But I'll be happy for the eggs when they start coming... They're sure to be better than the grocery store, right?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lindbergh and Lewis

The two local historical/literary figures in this area are Charles Lindbergh and Sinclair Lewis. Obviously, Charles Lindbergh is the better and bigger historical figure. His childhood home is in Little Falls, Minn., and has a really nice museum next door. The house itself is where he lived with his mother and grandmother, and on the tour they don't volunteer information about his father. Still, I can't imagine there's a tour where people are so "Minnesota nice" they don't ask, "If this was his mother's room, where did his father sleep?" His father, who was a congressman and mostly lived in Washington, lived a few blocks away, presumably with his mistress, when he visited or returned to Minnesota. Although Wikipedia says they divorced when Lindbergh was seven, the tour guide doesn't hint at divorce but just a highly irregular marriage.

Sinclair Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and made that town into Gopher Prairie, Minn., the town in Main Street that exposed small town America as small-minded, narrow, provincial and a bit mean. After hating the book at first, the town eventually came around-- might have been the Nobel Prize Lewis won in 1951-- and embraced their identity. There are still two blocks of "Original Main Street," with a vintage hotel that still had the room keys in little cubbies behind the desk. My parents and I stopped in to see it and thought about absconding a key and checking out a room. Two blocks off Main Street is Lewis's childhood home, a very modest affair, where his father the town doctor and his stepmother raised him and his two brothers. His mother died when he was six, and his father remarried within a year. He was a bookish and taciturn kid, a loner, and didn't fit in. His parents also didn't really fit in, and it seems his stepmother did a good job encouraging him in his educational and literary pursuits. In the end, he died alone in Italy but had requested to be buried in Sauk Centre, Minn.

I tried reading Babbit in high school but didn't really get it, and so gave up. I am going to get around to reading Main Street, maybe soon.

When I left New York for Silicon Valley in California after graduate school, my friend Hermine Meinhard gave me a framed black-and-white print of Sinclair Lewis and his second wife, Dorothy Thompson, sitting on the steps of a trailer in Hollywood. Lewis is typing, presumably a script, and Thompson is smiling. The print was from a calendar of literary folks, and Hermine took it off her wall and gave it to me as the only one of a writer in California. I had no affinity for Sinclair Lewis, but I loved Hermine and hung the print on my wall. I took it with me to Chicago and then, more aptly, hung it in my apartment in Long Beach, California, when I moved there in 2002. Finally, I brought it with me to Stearns County, Minnesota, 25 miles from Sinclair Lewis's boyhood home. I hung it in the hallway by my bedroom, and now it is next to my desk. Tucked into the frame is a snapshot of Hermine and me at graduation from Sarah Lawrence.

I'm not sure what that means, if anything. I just like the journey the print has taken, and that I've landed here. I hope to fit in better than young Sinclair did, and I hope to make something of my literary dreams, which it feels like I've held onto for a long time, and carried from coast to coast and back to the Midwest again.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

5th of July

It was a long, patriotic weekend.... I feel guilty for only working one shift at the Joeburger stand, but it was Friday night 5-8 which is the busiest time. I was on register, though, which seems easy-- since I was assigned to french fries. Afterwards I joined my parents for the conert. We sat too close to the speakers and so, well, I don't need to hear Bobby Vee ever again. But you might not need to sit too close to feel that way about Bobby Vee. The fireworks seemed very ephemeral, and also expensive. I wondered if we were in a recession or not. I think people just won't say, "we're not doing that anymore." I'm not sure why. What I heard was that the concert attendance was higher than ever, but beer sales were down. Not sure how long the parish can do a free concert if people don't buy food and drink. Of course, 10,000 drunks in St. Joseph is not really what the parish is going for.

Saturday we went to hear Garrison Keillor do his 35th anniversary show in Avon, seven miles up the road. It was crowded but well-organized, so not at all difficult to get in. And they were selling rhubarb pie at the Fisher's Club stand. It was hot, but we had very good seats. The show was sort of a last-minute affair, so none of the actors were there. Instad Keillor had politicians reading patriotic poetry, and two local WWII vets telling their oral histories. The Catholic priest was very good on the fly, and the Lutheran pastor must have had stage fright or never have heard the show-- so, Catholics win! It was very local, which was fun, and St. Joseph got several mentions. It was also fun to see how the show worked, the set-ups, the transitions, the notes being passed back and forth, and the ease with which Garrison more or less just talked, sang, and talked some more.

Today we went to Quarry Park and Munsinger and Clemens Gardens in St. Cloud. Local fun walking along the piles of quarry slag and through a nice restored prairie, and then in the formal gardens along the Mississippi River. Finished up with a good barbecue with everyone on the farm. Good until next year!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

4th of July-- July 1

The Fourth of July is a big deal here. Bigger than anywhere else I've been. Sure, Chicago has its amazing fireworks, with the symphony playing the big overture and etc. I did go in on the train once while in college or just afterwards, and remember the sea of people, 250,000 officially, streaming down Michigan Avenue afterwards on our way back to our various transportations. And when we arrived we passed someone I knew from Grinnell walking the other way and couldn't stop, just shouted back at each other until the two currents took us our separate ways.

And sure, I was in New York one year, and got a seat on a roof with friends Frances and Jim in Brooklyn overlooking the East River and the fireworks set off of barges. It was 1991 and the first Gulf War had just started and there was a firework called the "scud" that we thought was just terrible-- a flare would go up and then another would "intercept" it. We learned this on the radio simulcast being broadcast somewhere else on the rooftop.

I did always love going into the big field off Orchard Avenue in Park Forest to watch the fireworks display.

But all of this has nothing on St. Joseph, Minnesota. This town of 5,000 people is ground zero for a gigantic parish festival on the 4th of July weekend that brings in about half of the church's annual budget. Preparations began yesterday, June 30, with the arrival of lots of materials for set-up in the church parking lot.

Steve is one of the chairs of the Joe Burger stand, by far the most labor-intensive and popular stand at the festival, although this year there will be a Joetown Brat, which might take some pressure off.

A Joe Burger and a Joe Burger with cheese are the same price, $3. Fries are $2 and a fountain drink is $1. Working the cashier spot does take some math, and there are no calculators. What makes a Joe Burger special are the grilled onions.

Tonight at 6 p.m., onion grilling began. It's now 10 p.m. and Steve is not back. I know from last year that the entire downtown now smells like onion. They do about 500 lbs of grilled onions-- that's 1/4 ton.

I thought you'd like some photos, so on my way to the grocery store to stock up for mom and dad's visit, I took these. A happy crew-- next year I think I will no longer be able to avoid that day. As for me, I'm on to work the stand tomorrow from 5-8, and given the lack of help for the late shift, expect to be on the stand from 10:30-midnight as well. I'll send my mom and dad home after the fireworks.

July 3rd has become the larger of the two events in recent years. Bobby Vee, known for his 1950s hits "Red Rubber Ball" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," gives a free concert with his sons, and they've added a few other local bands as well. That brings them out-- that and the beer and Joe Burgers. In recent years there has been growing concern about safety with the huge crowds on the 3rd, but they aren't sure how to scale it back. I think stopping selling beer and burgers at 10 p.m. would be a start. But maybe the late-night burgers placates the crowds after the fireworks until they can get their cars out.

On July 4th there is a parade, which draws another 10,000 or so to our small town. I'm not sure why, as I think it is not a very good parade. In the years I've seen it there are too many semi trucks and politicians, and not nearly enough marching bands or people throwing candy to children. Two years ago I watched it with my four-year-old friend Orianna, who is afraid of clowns. We watched from the kitchen window of her house, away from the exhaust, and safe if there might be the sudden appearance of a clown on a float. I imagine this year my parents and I will walk down and see at least some of it-- it goes on for two hours or more-- and maybe hit the Joe Burger stand a second time, if we can take the crowds. That's a good time to look at the quilts for the quilt auction and if you're into pull-tabs, it's a good time for that, too.
Steve says it's the worst week of his year, but once you're a chair of the Joe Burger stand, you can't really get out of it-- not for at least 20 years, it seems, and this might be his fifth. The guys started planning for all the buns, special seasoning, ground beef from the St. Joe Meat Market, and of course, onions, back in February...