Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hands on

The Taste section is a weekly feature of our newspaper and appears Thursdays.

You never know what it will cover except that it has food in it. 

This makes Taste somewhat like a covered dish at a potluck, which we Midwesterners love

You have to open it to discover it and it's usually a surprise and something fun to try.

The Taste section last week profiled a batch of tastemakers as the newspaper calls them. They're cooks, restauranteurs, growers, brewers and more. 

They're folks with a passion for what they do. They were singled out in the May 24 issue for their influence on the local food scene. 

I scanned the different stories with interest. You want to get to know the good people who champion quality in the food you buy and restaurants you go to. 

Features like this, which introduce a segment of the community otherwise missed, are a large part of what keeps me buying the paper.
The back page of  the food section was a full gallery of pictures connected with the front story. This end page made such an impression on me. 

It was an arrangement of fifty pictures. Each picture shows a tastemaker at work. The text wisely notes that hands are nearly as important a tool to a cook as their imaginations. The photos back up this remark. 

The tastemakers, smiling or in genial poses on the front page, are on the back page a composite of hands.

The results are breathtakingly beautiful in an artisan sort of way. There are floury hands that remind me of so many hands, mostly of generations past, as they once kneaded the bread that sustained their families.

There are hands cradling what appear to be blueberries. There are hands held in a friendship clasp. In another picture wild mushrooms lie heaped like a prize in the palms of the hands.

Grain spills into cupped hands. In another picture a cupcake is raised as if in celebration. Rightly so. Confetti-topped and decorative it's a visual trumpet to call a party.

One of the tastemakers holds a slab of meat. Another shows off bars which reminds me that I forgot to check if a recipe is included elsewhere.

The paper was put down amid deep thought. The hands of the tastemakers had touched me. 

The pictures made me see hands as the expression of all our giving. Hands are at work every day giving service, doling out comfort, teaching our young, administering our laws, protecting our citizenry.

Our active hands maintain our homes, tend our babies, raise our children, operate businesses, run lawnmowers, paint houses and portraits, lay carpet, fix plumbing, make meals, deliver packages, plant gardens, build houses and innovate new technology.

These marvelous hands fly us to our resort destinations or to a loved one's funeral. They unload our luggage onto the carrousel. They steer the buses or drive the taxis. They point us in the direction to go when we're lost. And this is only a start.

Hands are at work every day in every minute around the globe. They're floury. They're dirty with grime or soil. They're washed and dried countless times through the day.

They're soft. They're tough. They're manicured and massaged with cream. They're untended and chapped and they work all the same. Sometimes they ache from overexertion or the throb of arthritis or stiffen with age and use.

And we look at them with almost the same wonder as goes with removing the lid on the covered hot dish. They're that quiet about themselves as they carry out what we set for them to do.

Last week's photo essay keeps me thinking about hands. It brings to me the loving ways our hands shape the days for someone else, or make our part of the world a better place, or fashion beauty out of what someone else perceives is ordinary clay.

Faces are believed to be the expression of who we are. There's truth in that. Much more so, perhaps, hands accurately reveal us.

Look in the mirror and you get back a reflected image. On the other hand, hands in action reflect reality.

As learned from a picture of fingers whitened by flour, working hands might be the best honest look at who we are and what is in us to do.

Ro  Giencke - May 30, 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Happiness Book

We remark on how green everything is. 

We say this every year at this time. It's an annual comment. 

The comment, like the look of the lawns, is as fresh to us as if green was never seen before.

Our grass is May green and green is the color of hope. Green may also be a description for happiness. Anything can be, I'm learning from my new book.

The new book is 14,000 things to be happy about. At a library book sale in Florida the book fell into my hands.

The author is Barbara Ann Kipfer. She's a favorite of mine going back to 8,789 Words of Wisdom. I like the way she gets her hands around life. 

Her particular brilliance is the ability to break down life into interesting and manageable size. She has the knack for organizing life into helpful units. Her little books cover instructions, possibilities and happiness. 

Her lists teem with the energy of the unstoppable creative one. She lays out her offerings for us to take in, take from and add to. It's a nifty thing she does.

At the library I thumbed through the book making up my mind that there was room to pack it along home. It struck me as a fun read as the pages were flipped quickly. 

My payment went into the slot and the book got tucked in as you make extra stuff somehow fit within your luggage. It makes a good souvenir was my thought as it was slipped in between some folded lightweight tops.

Books like this don't require starting at the beginning. Jump in, explore. I did go first to the author's preface which I'm glad I did.

Kipfer describes me when she says she began as a sixth grader with a spiral notebook recording things that made her happy. 

The same pleasure in putting ideas to paper was in me. I picked up happy times and ordinary moments and set them down in letters. It was happiness to write to people. It was my way of hugging life to me.

Some days I remember the book. It's by my reading chair as an intent to keep it in mind.

The bookmark tells me where I left off. It may be quite awhile before I think of the book again. There's no hurry with it.

Perhaps one of my 14,000 things to be happy about is the gift for savoring. I take easily to spinning out, and not finishing too soon, the restful minutes.

Kipfer says that the book, published in 1990, represents twenty years of recording the little things that have made her happy. 

This is some of the charm for me. Her list covers the years that have been my years. It recalls events, trends, TV shows, even people that defined our era as young and maturing women. From all of this our generation was choosing our happiness route, each one of us.

It pleases me when she and I concur on happiness. Apparently we mutually feast on vivid images. Write down my happiness definers and they match hers on page 110 - "flamingo coral, sunny red, sunflower pink, pink orchid colors."  

With her I'm made happy by sun-touched shoulders, a tiny plant in a little clay pot and wandering the fairgrounds (page105).

"Scanning a star-filled sky on a still winter night" (page 69) would figure on my list too. Then there's breakfast "with fresh-baked breads, granola, eggs, juices, steaming coffee and tea" (page 92). 

Indeed, happiness is food and food is in happiness. Food easily could make the first thousand listings if we go down that particular happiness path.

Some of Kipfer's happiness items leave me puzzled or in disagreement. "That wouldn't make me happy," I muse. "How did that get on the list?" I stumble on another. It causes me to think about happiness all over again.

This is possibly the point of a happiness list. Compose your own or study another's,  it's pretty much one and the same. 

You see yourself more clearly as you record happiness items (or read somebody else's). You grow as you examine each happiness in light of its effect on you (or the other). 

A better personal understanding is achieved. The breadth of happiness, taken from all perspectives, can blow you over.

"Last  Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees (page 81) was never a favorite song. The Monkees weren't my kind of group. They and their music were left alone.

Still, it's good action now to revisit "Last Train to Clarksville." It's an invitation into Kipfer's happiness which I don't wish to decline. In the long run, when we "get" another's happiness, we change ourselves.

I don't need to judge the song or the group from youthful experience but rather view it as from hers. Another's happiness - this I've learned for sure - can become yours as you let yourself wear it.

My happiness list (if started) would by now be very long. Experiences of happiness are everywhere for us to name and see. Just look around. Just feel. Just be.

Here are a couple for starters. 1) Lilacs in the house corner looking so pretty and smelling so good. Evenings in late spring the fragrance of lilacs comes in and is pure pleasure to inhale.

2) Memorial Day - official start to summer. Move this one up where it belongs. Without question it's my Happiness #1.

Happy Summer!

Ro Giencke - May 23, 2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012


It's the Minnesota Fish Opener which, in this state by long tradition, shares the second May weekend with Mother's Day.

Many grills sit forlorn on patios and decks this weekend. Kitchens go cold for a day as we take our moms to Sunday brunch or dinner.

Fire up the grills for Father's Day all you will. With the opening of the game fish season, and Mother's Day too, we have other fish to fry right now as the saying goes.

Such grilling as happens this weekend is often in the nature of a question. "Any luck?" fishing parties are asked as they come off the water.

"Where do you fish?" is a question some feel pressed into answering. They're the ones who like to keep their fishing hot spots secret. "Lake No Name'Um" has more than once been given as a reply.

Fish Opener results are covered in the news. A big catch or general lack thereof gives local color to the event.

With the fishing report any one of us can feel we sat all day in the boat. We can imagine reeling in the fishing line and perhaps a trophy walleye on one of the casts.

Opening day has been somewhat slow. A cold front yesterday might have had its effect on how the fish were biting. 

Whether on the lake or basking in the backyard there was luck with the weather. Today was an excellent catch. Bright skies, light breezes and temperatures around 70 degrees made this Saturday a keeper.

April, by now a couple weeks behind us, is a month of promise. It sometimes but doesn't always deliver. It teases as much as it pleases. It can act as if it steered by two left and two right feet. It has a goal but is apt to flounder on direction.

May is the expansive friend who throws a party. May wows with verve which is fresh and candid. This is carried through in May's important role as catalyst for summer.

It's the sense that May is the throttle on summer that makes me appreciate a certain line from the short story "Freeze-Out." The story, from 1931, is by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald's St. Paul stories are a number of short stories written before he hit it big as a published novelist. The short stories appeared in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post.

The early writings showcase his talent for exposing society and the times through the filter of his characters.

You can't help but take a shine to his cast of youth introduced in the St. Paul stories. They may be creative inventions of nearly a century ago. That doesn't matter at all.

Fitzgerald's agility in depicting his own boyhood through these kids makes them alive with longings, the joys and betrayals of friendship, dreams and the obstructions to their dreams.

They prepare for college in the East or return faintly conscious of the odor of exclusiveness upon them.

The book is The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. My favorite of the young people we meet is Basil Duke Lee.

He's the neighbor boy we all know down the block or would know if we lived on a leafy quiet affluent residential street in the green heart of St. Paul. We feel like we could even point out his house.

It was while spending time in Fitzgerald's old St. Paul that I read the line from "Freeze-Out." He writes, "On the day spring broke through and summer broke through - it is much the same thing in Minnesota" ...

As little as the author would see Minnesota after his youth he sure got it correct in this one line. The Minnesota warm season arrives like this.

It arrived like this one hundred years ago in Fitzgerald's experience. It arrives like this in modern day. It's not uncommon to have one big spike of heat. Cool to hot is immediate. Some of us cheer it on. Not so fast, others complain.

Fitzgerald is perhaps best known as the author of The Great Gatsby (look for it as a film in December 2012). I'll be at that book next.

Some people reel in fish, fighting and bending the rod, on their lines. Some of us fish using a slightly different method. We fish for lines, speaking of life, to reel in.

Good luck, fish responsibly and may the big ones leap into your net.

Ro Giencke - May 12, 2012

Saturday, May 5, 2012

King of the spring fish feed

Having two small kids gave family vacations a more local twist for a time. 

One year we visited Paul Bunyan at the theme park in Brainerd.

This trip is remembered because Paul the mighty woodsman spooked one of our children. The statue talked.

Every summer in those years of modest vacations we went home to see Al's parents. 

My folks lived closer. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we got there without a stop for a diaper change.

The visits home were appreciated both for a chance to be together and for our two to substitute their grandparents for us for awhile.

An opportunity to accompany Al to Duluth when he had some conference to attend was therefore, with big vacations on hold, a considerable treat. 

A change of place, a change of pace is my motto. I'll gladly take any new mileu and Duluth, if you're from Minnesota, is like a fast trip to San Francisco.

We had a motel near Miller Hill Mall. Our daughter, fourteen months old, was still taking naps. While the mall could be seen from the motel room, as a good mom I sat with my magazines in an easy chair while she had her afternoon snooze.

Shopping with young ones, I already had learned, isn't so easy. I enjoyed my own sunny corner of the room as she got her sleep and my son played quietly with matchbox cars on the floor.

Our daughter hadn't reached the walking stage. She was still crawling. She took some preliminary steps in the motel room that day which earned her hand claps and encouraged her to more.

That evening, with Al done with his part of the day, we drove to the Lester River. The river, in the north part of town, is one of the North Shore rivers that are so pretty in the Duluth area.

It was the time of the smelt run. We went to watch the smelters with their buckets and long-handled nets at the mouth of the river.

The rivers dropping from the hills to the Lake Superior shore are cold and swift in spring in most years after typical snowfall. The volume and speed of water going by was part of the excitement as we walked over to stand near the smelting activity.

These several years later I don't remember if the evening was mild or chilly. I hadn't packed for the kids to be outside. This was a spontaneous decision to drive over and see the smelters at work.

We didn't stand on the river bank for long. We were out long enough to feel the combination party atmosphere and concerted effort put into catching the smelt as dusk deepened to darkness.

Of the night I recall flashlights. Possibly it was the opening and closing of many car doors that makes this memory of light. It could have been interior dome lights coming on as the curious like us and smelters arrived and left.

There was a sense of adventure observing and, dare I imply, participating in the annual smelting rite.

As a girl my hometown had a smelt fry at the Armory every spring. We looked forward to it. Like the circus and 4th of July parades that perk up small towns, annual events are the community glue.

Men in white aprons, laughing and gesticulating, worked behind a counter. I don't recall if they were the cook crew or the staff who helped dish up the lines that came through.

We held them in awe. They were the ones connected to the smelt that came from the cold country up north. 

These guys were directly linked to the fish which were caught so differently from our local catches reeled in on rods using live bait or lures.

We loved the crisp bites of the smelts, deep fried in coconut oil I imagine, and disappearing fast off our plates. Potato chips and possibly cole slaw and buns were the sides. 

We got up from the table replete. We patted our stomachs and sighed in deep satisfaction. It was quite a meal.

The heavy oil smell clung to our outer wear announcing to everyone for at least the next day or two where we ate.

The night at Lester River connected me to the Armory smelt feeds of my past. We were at the spot where the smelt runs actually happen.

In those prior days the vision of smelts in their silvery, flashing numbers in cold rivers and lakes was as much a part of the Minnesota story as Paul Bunyan, about whom every student in our grade school knew by sixth grade, the year Minnesota history was studied.

While Paul Bunyan was noted by our teachers as Minnesota legend, smelt is something we had to discover on our own. 

Some of us knew smelt from eating it. Some had visited the northeast portion of the state from which smelt comes. But overall smelt wasn't of our world.

It took being there, absorbing the vigor of it, for me to thoroughly appreciate it as sport and tradition.

It becomes real as experienced, as can be said of our children's unforgettable visit with Paul Bunyan.

Ro Giencke - May 5, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bouquets for great mentors

There comes a time when you start really to think about those who shaped you.

I'm not talking parents here or necessarily teachers or traditional molders of youth.

The shapers, as I shall call them, appear throughout our lives. 

They're the ones you look around for someone to admire or you receive powerful learning or insightful wisdom from being in their presence.

Mostly you don't even know you're looking for that person. It's just that they stand out immediately, or their lesson does, or the little things they do add up and come to influence you or your thinking. 

This can give you new standards, ideals, outlooks or even turn you in a new direction.

Sometimes it's someone with qualities you wish were yours. You see their poise or kindness or humor or adroitness or physical strength or leadership skills and it strikes you. There! That's who/what I want to be (or be more like).

We start young. We look up to older brothers or sisters or neighbor kids. They're doing something we want to do. At two and four and six we already intuitively understand the concept of cool.

It might be the freedom to go outside and play while we're kept back being too little. It may be watching them hop on a bike or executive a perfect dive off that - to us - long walk to the edge of the diving board.

We observe teens, the enviable tribe which are like demigods to their juniors. They giggle in their groups. They strut with peer confidence. 

They pull away sleekly from the curb in cars they're old enough to drive. Their hands rest lightly on the steering wheels. 

We'll do this some day we're told. Or we just know. The ones we admire are the ones who point the way. The promise is that it's all doable.

Celebrities and risktakers are role models for many of us. There's something about being rich and beautiful or living dangerously that has universal appeal. 

Idols of our own making can strike chords of jealousy within us. These folks seem to have it all and perhaps even flaunt it a bit or outrageously.

The possibility of everything is in their flashing moments as they parade before the adoring public.  

Following them even at a distance is more of a dreaming for most of us. We peek into their lives and in our hearts they're not our first or even foremost role models. 

Lots of us want the more substantial hero and often we want that hero cut from our own cloth.

As I reflect on the people I earliest admired several come to mind. There would be surprise on their parts that they made that kind of impression.

Often these people hardly knew me. Or I them. But what was seen was taken note of. These encounters have led to a lasting sense of connection with them because of some admirable quality or action that touched me.

There was Joyce, the mother of a classmate. Naturally we didn't call her Joyce. In elementary school days mothers were Mrs. along with whatever the last name was. 

If you knew the person very well you might use the first name. This was seldom for moms of kids in your grade at school.

She was pretty, young and gracious. She had the finesse that comes with having money and being at ease with it. I adored her. 

Of course that's too strong a term. I admired her as an eight or ten year old girl does who identifies with a woman who's not her mother.

It's the continuing application of contrasts that helps us find our own way. Other people, we soon discover, work very well as contrast material as we pinpoint who we are. We can often determine what suits us and what doesn't by the examples others demonstrate for us.

Joyce represented my sense of the unfolding world. She was of the bigger horizon. Her friendly cheer and smile gave substance to adult life beyond my experience of the home or familiar people. 

Unknowingly she was role modeling traits that I was tagging important for when my adult years came.

Then there was Stella (again, not a name we used). She was our substitute teacher in third grade. 

Our regular teacher was a pro at teaching. She had her rules. She was firm and she was fair. We paid attention and learned right along.

The few days she was absent during the school year, however, and her delightful young substitute came in, we all wiggled with pleasure at our desks. Stella made everything so interesting. 

She was vivacious. She brought a fresh style of teaching into the classroom. She was invigorating. She was the one who taught our class that Niagara Falls is a traditional place for honeymoons. 

Say what you will, it's the one solid piece of information I can positively declare came out of my third grade education!

When I was a teen, and worked part time at the local paper, as a walker I walked to the job and walked elsewhere a lot. I got to many places in town by walking. My brothers and I all walked. 

During this time I got to know a woman who also walked. I admired her because she dared to walk.

She was the wife of an attorney. She ran in a far different set. But there we were, heading in the same direction, our steps falling in with each other's. We visited as we moved along.

It seemed to me she wasn't afraid to buck convention by walking. Being seen walking wasn't what many of us wanted said of us. 

Owning a second vehicle was becoming more common. If you walked it could appear you weren't one of the two car households. Who wants to fall behind on that score it was thought then.

I appreciated this woman choosing to get around town on foot. She was doing her own thing and obviously enjoying the independence it gave her.

She was friendly and nice. She noticed me and spoke as an equal. Young people know when an adult is being genuine with them and she was that.

Don and Carol are a couple who stand out for their sheer likability. They ran a small seasonal antique shop. As a neighbor I helped out in the summer. 

Don was a prince of a fellow. No one finer. Both were hospitable. In Carol I had someone I could relate to and visit with and enjoy. 

When you find kindred spirits there is a special relationship and this best describes the affinity between Carol and me.

Two senior Board Directors from the Historical Society I joined as a young married new to town epitomize the welcoming that can make a young person bloom, grow and feel at home. They welcomed me warmly as I came aboard as a new board director that first spring. 

You don't forget such kindness. Both were Scandinavian in parentage. They had what I consider the Swedish manners and civility that I was accustomed to through my mom's side of the family. 

That town always felt like home to us. It was a cinch to fit in. In great part it was because of ones like these two men who knew how to say, Hi, glad you're here.

It brings to mind something I once heard, that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. 

This may suggest, in regard to role models, mentors and benefactors, that it's as if their radars and your own are lined up to meet. 

When you cross paths the interchange can be a short time. In many cases the effects, however, last forever. 

With an open heart gratitude is the end result. It deepens as you more clearly recognize the multiple kindnesses received along life's shared pathway.

Ro Giencke - May 2, 2012